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Review: The Deadly Tower of Monsters

Jan 19 // Chris Carter
The Deadly Tower of Monsters (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: ACE TeamPublisher: AtlusReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $14.99 The silly audio "DVD" commentary right from the start helps cement that B-movie feel Deadly is going for. Permeating through the menus, the "director" of the "movie" you're playing will continue to comment on your actions throughout, much like the narrator from Bastion. This narration however is a bit wackier, and will make fun of everything from gamey elements like finding useful items instantly in unexpected places, why items disappear after you pick them up (the hero "beams" them back to his ship), and how the actors got into a particular costume. He even boasts in one early scene that having his female lead rescue his male lead is progressive, and how he was "ahead of his time" for it. It's amusing enough to keep one interested throughout. So how does it play? Well, it's basically an isometric action game, with twin-stick shooting and melee attacks. The latter can be charged for effect, and players can also roll, or hover with a jetpack in a double jump of sorts. It's a small thing, but intuitive health bars circle each enemy, so you know exactly how much of a beating they'll need. There's also three playable characters available -- Dick Starspeed, Scarlet Nova, and Robot. All of them have unique powers at their disposal, but for the most part, the choice is aesthetic. What I really like about Deadly Tower is how fresh the game constantly keeps things. At first I thought it was going to be a simple sci-fi spoof with aliens, but it's so much more than that. There's Planet of the Ape-esque monkey men, "Energy Imps," a Ghost Pirate ship, and so much more that I won't spoil here. The gimmick is really cool as well, in that the entire game takes place on a gigantic tower that extends from the ground level of an alien planet all the way to space. Players will slowly climb said tower with checkpoints, which you can instantly teleport to after obtaining them. [embed]334028:61857:0[/embed] Great camera work also helps show off these environments in a big way, and I love how you can alter the visuals and music from "DVD" quality to the worse "VHS" setting. Cutscenes can also be fast-forwarded even upon the initial viewing, and there's several funny effects such as a forced black and white section for "budgetary reasons. ACE Team also goes full hog when it comes to the theme -- I'm talking Ray Harryhausen-like stop-motion animation in some cases. If it sounds jarring it really isn't, as the player character is always on point, so the framerate doesn't necessarily drop when enemies like that appear. "For those who are curious, here are the PC visual options and the control scheme. The best part though is the freefalling system. From any point of the tower you can jump off, starting a falling animation that allows you to aim and shoot downwards, collecting helpful objects in the air as you descend. It's a rush to jump off really high points and just take in the scenery, and boss fights that incorporate this mechanic are even more fun. The fact that you can use an "air teleport" system at the touch of a button to return to the point where you fell and teleport to any checkpoint at any time is the icing on the cake, allowing a large degree of freedom when it comes to exploration. This is especially helpful on PC, where I encountered two crashes in my first playthrough. When I loaded the game again I picked up right back where I left off. Despite all my praise though, you should know what you're getting into. My first playthrough only took me roughly three hours to complete, and I managed to spend an extra hour looking for artifacts and completing additional objectives. There doesn't seem to be any option for a New Game+ or the ability to alter the difficulty, which definitely stings a bit despite its strong initial run. I can definitely see replaying it every so often however, and jumping off of the top of the tower is something I did many, many times. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a fleeting experience, but one that no B-movie fan should go without. I have a few issues with the loot and upgrade systems (namely in that they feel superfluous), but as a straight action game, it mostly succeeds in what it sets out to do. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Deadly Tower review photo
Harryhausen would be proud
I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who had a penchant for classic films, and B-humor. Hell, their first date was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and as a child, I was raised with an endearment to the craft,...

Review: Resident Evil 0 HD Remaster

Jan 18 // Chris Carter
Resident Evil Zero HD Remaster (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: CapcomPublisher: CapcomReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $19.99 Zero begins with a rather interesting setpiece: a moving train. Rebecca Chambers, a member of S.T.A.R.S., is sent to investigate crimes in the Arklay Mountains -- conveniently located (and thus, linked) near Raccoon City and the original game's mansion. Here she meets Billy Coen, an alleged murderer and ex-Marine, and starts an "unlikely" partnership. You can probably tell from the setup that the tale is a pastiche of cheesy horror not unlike past games, but it's done just as effectively as before. Sure, the story never really makes much sense, even after the final credits roll, but you'll have a good time while you're along for the ride. Rebecca and Billy have a fun dynamic that is extended throughout Zero. The former can combine herbs and story-related chemicals, and the latter can take more of a beating and move heavy objects. It's not an original concept even for the era it was released in, but it works. This is mostly because of the "zap" partner system that allows both characters to be on-screen at the same time. You can opt to have your AI partner attack or stay idle, which is great if you don't want them wasting ammo. Swapping is as easy as pressing a button to start a second-long heartbeat transition to the other character. You can also control the AI with the right analog stick, which comes in handy for moving them out of harm's way. This idea is used in many different ways that chop up the game's pacing for the better. In some zones, Rebecca and Billy are split, working separately to exchange key items with one another through special devices like service elevators. In other areas, they're working in tandem to solve those wonderful box puzzles, where Billy is moving cubes and Rebecca is operating a device of some sort. Given that so many of Resident Evil's puzzles feature solutions born out of just one avatar, I like that Capcom went with something different here. There's another huge difference when it comes to Zero and all of the games before it: item management. In the past, players would mostly store their items in a magical gamey storage box of sorts, where you could access your armory and inventory wherever a box was located. Now, you can place items on the ground and store them anywhere on the map, no questions asked (well, outside of the single room item limit, which is inexplicably still in this remake). For instance, if you want to split a few typewriter ribbons off a stack of 10 and place them in a save room, you can. The same goes for weapons and herbs, or any key items you may pick up. [embed]332496:61804:0[/embed] Items now show up on the map, so there's no guessing as to where you put them. It's a more challenging system, for sure -- you don't have the infinite box to rely on, and sometimes you'll have to run through gauntlets of enemies if you happen to stash a key item and are required to run back for it. Its use does start to grate mid-way through the game, as it can get rather tedious to juggle everything. The mechanic isn't really re-used, but it helps cement Zero's unique identity (for better and worse) along with zapping, and the level designs mostly accommodate it. This is an old-school Resident Evil game at heart, back when "survival" was still a key factor of the series. Zero features limited ammo, save ribbons, and a lot of decision making, mostly in regards to inventory management. This is especially true given the zapping, because at any moment one character may be forced to fight a boss without the help of another, so ensuring that both cast members are fully equipped is key to your success. In terms of the actual "Remaster" moniker, a lot of the technical details are the same as before. The visuals and framerate have been updated, there's a new non-tank modern control method available, and you can swap between 16:9 and 4:3 resolution (even on consoles) -- but the cheesy FMVs remain untouched. Capcom really could bring back every entry pre-Resident Evil 4 just like this and I'd be happy. Thankfully though, it's slightly more than just a straight touch-up due to the addition of Wesker mode. In this special gametype only found in the remake (that's acquired by beating the game once), Billy is shoved to the side in favor of Wesker, who operates as Rebecca's partner throughout the game. This mode is meant to be silly. Wesker can use his superhuman powers he's flaunted since Code Veronica, including the ability to quickly dash across the room, and use a special energy attack to pop zombie's heads off. He can also mix herbs and doesn't have many limitations. They didn't go the full mile -- Billy is still present in cutscenes, as is his voice -- but it's a meaty enough change.  All of the old unlocks are also present, including additional costumes, weapons, and the Mercenaries-like "Leech Hunter." The latter is a mini-game of sorts that tasks players with escaping a modified version of the Research Center, and gets tougher as you play it. It's not as memorable as some of the true Mercenary modes in other games, but it's worth clearing at least once and should adequately test the mettle of series veterans. As a whole, Resident Evil Zero isn't one of my favorite entries, but with the amount of care that went into this remake, like Resident Evil HD Remaster before it, I'm really coming around. In fact, just get both if you don't have them already. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Resident Evil 0 HD review photo
Welcome, Wesker
For whatever reason, I didn't end up completing Resident Evil Zero back when it was released in 2002 -- in fact, it took me 10 years to truly dive into it. I think it just flew under the radar, but thankfully Capcom has opted...

Review: The Bug Butcher

Jan 18 // Jordan Devore
The Bug Butcher (Mac, Linux, Windows [reviewed])Developer: Awfully Nice StudiosPublisher: Awfully Nice StudiosRelease: January 19, 2016MSRP: $7.99 When I close my eyes, I now see aliens splitting apart into smaller aliens, again and again, until there is nothing left. I can picture exactly how they will move; when they'll strike. Clearly, this game has seeped into my mind. It only took a few short hours. As the titular exterminator, you're called into a research facility to clean up an infestation of creepy crawlers. Each of the 30 levels has the same basic premise -- "the only good bug is a dead bug!" -- but varying stage hazards, gimmicks, and enemy types keep the action engaging. Even after going back through most of the levels several times now, I'm yearning for more. It's all so very satisfying, and the scoring system and character upgrades further incentivize repeated playthroughs. I'll happily oblige. Every alien has a distinct look and movement pattern, but there are constants. They always enter the screen from above, telegraphing their descent so you aren't caught off guard. This is a game that rarely, if ever, feels "cheap." The majority of the bugs bounce around, touching down for a split second before going airborne again. Others hover from side to side, or stick to the ceiling. One pest crawls on the ground, waiting to pounce like a Facehugger. After taking enough damage, most will split into smaller beings that can quickly fill the room if left unchecked. This is important because, crucially, you can only shoot straight up. Positioning is everything. [embed]334931:61897:0[/embed] You'll have to keep an eye out for items that temporarily boost your damage or speed, and weapons like a laser beam, lightning gun, or rocket launcher. None of these last long, but they all pack a hefty punch and are enjoyable to wield. By keeping your combo up, you can also earn one-time-use abilities to, say, become invincible or freeze every alien in place if you're in a bind. Vanquished bugs litter the floor with coins, and there's a score-based, end-of-level payout. In the main Arcade mode, you can buy passive perks and permanent upgrades to make any weapons or abilities you might encounter mid-battle more useful. (To be clear: you always begin levels with your standard machine gun. Which is fine! It's quite good.) You're only able to equip a single perk at a time and, between the three choices, I prefer the one that lets you take a hit without dropping your combo. There's also Panic mode, playable alone or with a friend in split-screen, in which you try to survive for as long as possible. You can keep fighting until you're either out of health or out of time. For me, it's invariably the former. I have no problem scrambling to grab time extensions, but in doing so, I become too reckless. At any point, it's possible to pause the action to buy upgrades for your current run. Unlike in Arcade mode, these purchases aren't persistent across levels. The Bug Butcher gets chaotic, but rarely is it frustrating. Even when the screen is packed with enemies, you still have this overall awareness of where you should be standing, and when. The difficulty curve is spot on. It does a stellar job of making you feel mostly in control -- and, at times, over-powered -- without letting you sleepwalk to victory. You'll have to work for those high scores. I loved the responsive controls, and that's a big factor when examining an action-heavy game like this, but the presentation is also commendable. The art and sound design play pivotal roles. Bugs are squishy, just as you'd expect, while power-ups serve as a visual and auditory jolt of energy. The thumping electronic soundtrack is unrelenting, further helping to keep you in The Zone. If there's a major complaint to be made about The Bug Butcher, it's that there simply isn't more of it. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
The Bug Butcher review photo
Do your part!
When I first heard about The Bug Butcher last year, I thought it looked like a nice modern take on the bubble-popping shooter Super Pang. But I held off. I have a regrettable history of playing games in Steam Early Access onl...

Review: Jotun

Jan 17 // Jed Whitaker
Jotun (PC)Developer: Thunder Lotus GamesPublisher: Thunder Lotus GamesMSRP: $14.99Release Date: September 29, 2015 Thora just died an inglorious death and she must now prove herself by battling jotun, giant elementals based on Norse mythology, to enter Valhalla. Along her adventure, players will learn the story of Thora's life, all spoken beautifully in her native tongue with subtitles. Easily one of the strongest and well done female characters I've encountered in a long time, Thora isn't rail-thin, sexualized, or disrespectful of her foes as she cuts them down.  Each level consists of three sections, two of which can be entered and exited at will. These sections each contain a rune that when collected opens up a third area where you'll be battling the jotun. If you're hoping to slay tons of enemies in each level, you may be disappointed, as Jotun focuses on the journey and atmosphere, rather than combat. Most of the time you'll be checking your map and exploring to discover statutes that confer the powers of the gods, health upgrades, and, of course, runes. [embed]333479:61894:0[/embed] A lack of combat isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the levels are drawn beautifully and are well designed. Also, Jotun has some of the best sound design I've heard in an indie game in some time; you'll hear birds chirping, branches crackling, and snow blowing, all while a beautifully-orchestrated soundtrack plays in the background. More so than any other game I've palyed, this attention to detail makes for an atmosphere that sells the "journeying through purgatory all by your lonesome" aesthetic.  If you're hungry for a fight, don't fret, as each level ends with a battle of a gigantic jotun. Jotuns are so large the camera has to pan to the point Thora looks like an ant by comparison. While each battle consists of chopping away at the feet of each jotun with your trusty axe, they all feel different enough to stay fresh. That said, the strategy for taking on each jotun is similar: avoid attacks, look for an opening, attack, rinse, lather, repeat. As there are only six jotun in total to conquer, the formula never gets stale.  Battling these gigantic foes are easily the best part of the game, as each one is hand drawn with an animation style reminiscent of Don Bluth's work from Dragon's Lair. The jotun are as beautiful as they are terrifying.  The difficulty scales well throughout the adventure, as the levels leading up to boss battles ensure each of the game's mechanics is understood and well utilized. The first level requires players to use heavy attacks to bushwhack through a forest level, a skill that is later required to defeat that stage's jotun battle. Another area involves climbing a gigantic tree while a huge bird periodically swoops down at Thora, requiring players to time dodge rolls, which of course is used in the ensuing battle with another jotun.  If you're looking for something laid back, beautifully drawn, and well orchestrated with some intense, but not overly difficult, boss battles, then Jotun is easy to recommend. It's a magical ride that I'm sure I'll revisit from time to time in the future. Even though the whole experience only lasts just over five hours, it is five solid hours. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Tharsis (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsMSRP: 14.99Release Date: January 12, 2016
Review: Jotun photo
The opposite of a foot fetish
The response to my review of Freedom Planet was pretty positive, as was the suggestion that I'd be reviewing some older Steam games we may have looked over, so here we are. Jotun slipped us by here at Destructoid when it released late last year, but I'm here to remedy that. This is little game with big heart, big style, even bigger enemies, and strong female lead to boot.

Review: Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Silent gaming keyboard

Jan 16 // Joe Parlock
[embed]334733:61890:0[/embed] Product: Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Cherry Silent Gaming KeyboardManufacturer: CorsairInput: 2x USB 2.0, or 1x USB 3.0MSRP: $159.99/£159.99 On first impressions, the STRAFE certainly looks the part of a £160 keyboard. With metal side plates, each key being brightly lit by a changeable colour LED, and a stylish wrist rest, it’s difficult to deny it’s a pretty keyboard that would fit well in any dedicated gaming rig. The major appeal of the STRAFE is its aesthetics. Downloading the Corsair Utility Engine will give users access to tinker with the lighting on every single individual key, or set profiles which can have some damn cool visual effects. Right now, every time I press a key, a ripple effect will spill multi-coloured lights all the way across my keyboard, which looks just lovely. And if the stock effects aren’t to your liking, you can also download user-made presets via Corsair's website. There are also practical uses for the lighting control, too. For example, there are presets highlighting the keys most often used with games, such as a WASD-lit preset for first-person shooters, or a QWER preset for MOBAs. It’s not going to give you a major advantage, but for anyone that dislikes the included physical keycaps (which I feel interfere with the aesthetics of the keyboard), these can provide much-appreciated alternatives. [embed]334733:61891:0[/embed] The keys themselves are awesome. Underneath them are Cherry MX Silent switches, which only launched a few months ago. The good thing about them is their low actuation point, which means you don’t have to press the key as far before the input is registered. For gaming, it feels quicker and more responsive than other switches. Seriously, gaming on this thing feels nice.  For typing, it can admittedly feel a bit sloppy and can result in more typing errors, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off for the extra control in-game . I don’t hear a notable difference between the Silent switches in the STRAFE RGB and the standard Cherry MX Reds in my old Corsair K90. I do hammer quite hard at my keys, though, so for more delicate users there might be a bit more of a difference. While gaming on the STRAFE feels great, which is the major concern with a gaming keyboard, there are two major problems that make me question whether it’s worth the asking price. Firstly, the build quality is inconsistent. The bit of the keyboard you most regularly use is of fantastic quality.The area where the keys sit feels great: it’s heavy, and the back plate is solid and non-flexing. Even if I try to bend it with my hands, there’s absolutely no give. The raised keys make cleaning easy, and the lights are incredibly bright and vibrant, with key labels will likely never fade.  Unfortunately, the bits you may consider ‘extras’ betray the quality of the main board. The wrist rest feels flimsy, and it doesn’t sit flat on my desk, meaning there was quite a bit of flexing involved whenever I put weight on it. Eventually, I had to unclip it and use an old third-party wrist rest, which is chunkier, but provides more support. The cable is also a problem: it’s not visibly braided (which is fine by me, but some people swear by braided cables for aesthetic reasons), and the way the USB inputs are arranged is potentially problematic. You either need plug both the USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 heads into USB 2.0 ports, or you can just plug into a single 3.0 port, leaving the spare 2.0 head flapping around the back of your computer. For cable management nuts, this can be pretty annoying, as it takes up precious space, at least if your PC is in a tight space like mine. This had me resorting to plugging the STRAFE into an external USB hub that was out of the way just to make sure I could fit other cables around the back of my PC. While this may sound like a minor issue, and it is, the STRAFE sits at a top-end price point, where I expect a bit more thought to have gone into the less immediately obvious aspects of the design. The problem that is a bigger deal for me personally is the lack of extra features. My older Corsair K90 retails almost £40 cheaper than the STRAFE RGB, but comes with both dedicated macro and media keys, which the STRAFE lacks. Having to hold down function keys to change the volume (like you see with standard laptop keyboards) was irritating, and in my experience didn’t register with some games like my old physical scrolling wheel did. It’s not a world-ending deal breaker, but it did screw with my workflow quite a bit having to use both hands to change the volume in-game. Overall, the Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Cherry Silent is a mixed bag. For everyday use, it's difficult to justify the price. It lacks some of the features I would’ve expected, and the build quality in some areas could be a lot better. But purely as a game controller, or if money isn’t a concern, the STRAFE is simply fantastic. Durable, responsive and stylish, if you use your gaming PC solely for gaming, then I highly recommend it. The Cherry MX Silent switches feel smooth, easy to use, and have the lifespan to survive many years of intensive gaming. This is the second Corsair keyboard I’ve used, and my response to both has been the same: impressed, but with caveats. [This review is based on retail hardware provided by the manufacturer.] Manufacturer: CorsairInput: 2x USB 2.0, or 1x USB 3.0MSRP: $159.99/£159.99 On first impressions, the STRAFE certainly looks the part of a £160 keyboard. With metal side plates, each key being brightly lit by a changeable colour LED, and a stylish wrist wrest, it’s difficult to deny that it’s a very pretty keyboard that’d fit well in any dedicated gaming rig. The big appeal of the STRAFE is an aesthetic one. Downloading the Corsair Utility Engine will give you access to tinker with the lighting on every single individual key, or set profiles which can have some really damn cool visual effects. Right now, every time I press a key, a ripple effect will spill multi-coloured lights all the way across my keyboard, and it looks just lovely. If the stock effects aren’t to your liking, you can also download quite a few user-made presets on the Corsair website too. There are also practical uses for the lighting control, too. For example, there are presets that highlight the keys most often used for various games, such as a WASD-lit preset for FPS, and a QWER preset for MOBAs. It’s not going to give you any major advantage, but for those who aren’t a fan of the included physical keycaps (which I felt interfered with the aesthetics of the keyboard), it’s a much-appreciated alternative. The keys themselves are awesome. Underneath them are Cherry MX Silent switches, which were only launched a few months ago. The good thing about them is their low actuation point, which means you don’t have to press the key as far before the input is registered. For gaming, it feels quick and responsive compared to both other switches and your standard membrane input on cheaper keyboards. Seriously, gaming on this thing feels nice.  For typing, it can admittedly feel a bit sloppy and can result in more typing errors, but for the extra control in-game, I reckon it’s a worthwhile trade-off. I don’t hear a notable difference between the Silent switches in the STRAFE RGB and the standard Cherry MX Reds in my old Corsair K90. I do hammer quite hard at my keys, though, so for more delicate users there might be a bit more of a difference. While gaming on the STRAFE feels great, which for a gaming keyboard is probably the main thing, there are two fairly major problems that make me question whether it’s worth the asking price. Firstly, the build quality is pretty inconsistent. The bit the actual keys sit on feels great: it’s heavy, and the back plate is solid and non-flexing. Even if I try to bend it with my hands, there’s absolutely no give. The raised keys make cleaning it easy, and the lights are incredibly bright and vibrant, with key labels that will never fade. The bit of the keyboard you most regularly use is of fantastic quality. Unfortunately, the bits which may be considered ‘extras’ betray the quality of the main board. The wrist-rest feels fairly flimsy, and it doesn’t sit flatly on my desk, meaning there is quite a bit of flexing when I put weight on it. I eventually had to unclip it and use my old third-party wrist-rest, which is chunkier and provides more support anyway. The cable can also be a problem too: it’s not visibly braided (which is fine by me, but some people swear on having braided cables for aesthetic reasons), and the way the USB inputs are arranged can be a problem. You either need plug both the USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 heads into USB 2.0 ports, or you plug just the 3.0 into a single 3.0 port, leaving the spare 2.0 head flapping around the back of your computer. For cable management nuts that can be annoying, and it can take up precious space if your PC is in a tight space like mine. I had to resort to plugging it into an external USB hub that was out of the way just to make sure I could fit other cables around the back of my PC. These may sound like minor things, and they are, but as the STRAFE sits at a top-end price point, I would’ve expected a bit more design to have gone into the less immediately obvious parts of it. My second problem is a bigger one for me personally, and that is the lack of extra features. My older Corsair K90 RRPs at almost £40 less than the STRAFE RGB, yet it comes with both dedicated macro and media keys, both things the STRAFE lacks. Having to hold down function keys to change the volume like a standard laptop keyboard was irritating, and I found it didn’t register in some games like my old physical scrolling wheel did. It’s not a world-ending deal breaker, but it did screw with my workflow quite a bit having to use both hands to change the volume in-game. Overall, the Corsair STRAFE RGB MX Cherry Silent is a mixed bag. For everyday use, I’m struggling to justify the price. It lacks some of the features I would’ve expected, and the build quality in some areas could be better. But purely as a game controller, or for those where money isn’t much of a concern for them? It’s simply fantastic. Durable, responsive and stylish, if you use your gaming PC solely for gaming, then I highly recommend it.  The Cherry MX Silent switches feel smooth, easy to use and have the lifespan to put up with many years of intensive gaming. This is the second Corsair keyboard I’ve used, and my response to both has been the same: impressed, but with caveats.
Gaming Keyboard photo
Solid, flashy, but not perfect
I spend most of my time doing one of two things: writing about games for you lovely lot, or playing games so I can then write about games for you lovely lot. Because of that, keyboards are important to me, and finding one tha...

Review: Gravity Rush Remastered

Jan 15 // Josh Tolentino
Gravity Rush Remastered (PS4)Developer: SCE Japan Studio and Bluepoint GamesPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan and AsiaReleased: December 10, 2015 (Japan/Asia), February 2, 2016 (NA/EU)MSRP: $29.99 [Note: This review is based on the English-language version of the game released in Asian regions on December 10, 2015. We expect that there will be few if any significant differences between this release and the upcoming North America/EU releases.] The most striking part of Bluepoint's work on Gravity Rush Remastered is on the technical side. The game runs at a smooth, uninterrupted 60 frames per second, at a native 1080p resolution. Higher-resolution textures sport additional detail and sharpening while improved lighting and antialiasing brings out the color in the game's unique cel-shaded aesthetic. No one's going to mistake Gravity Rush Remastered for a "native" PS4 game, but it does look much like the way I (fondly) remember the Vita original, which is high praise considering that I can compare the two side-by-side and see just how much work went into the porting job.  While Bluepoint has made some considerable improvements to Gravity Rush Remastered's graphical quality and performance, it was more conservative in terms of content, opting just to add the original's three downloadable content packs as standard, and a gallery mode to check out concept art, character designs, and unlocked cutscenes. This may dilute the game's value proposition somewhat for existing Gravity Rush owners on the fence about double-dipping since the game is identical in content and design to the Vita version. [embed]334467:61883:0[/embed] If there's anything about the game that qualifies as "bad news," it's rooted in the fact that the content itself is unchanged. As such, the criticisms raised by Jim Sterling in his review of the original do stand, to an extent. The game's mission design never really lives up to the sheer joy of its central gravity-shifting mechanic, and no amount of frame rate improvement or antialiasing can change that. Combat and control in stressful situations can still be a little squirrely, though the better "feel" of a DualShock 4 controller, combined with the extra awareness afforded by a larger screen, makes it easier to compensate. Even players who enjoyed the tilt- and touchscreen-based features of Gravity Rush are accommodated, thanks to the DualShock 4's own motion sensing and touch panel (though these can be turned off if desired). The narrative is also much more proficient at establishing atmosphere and personality than at answering the questions it raises, and by the end of the campaign it can feel like one has just read an incomplete set of obscure foreign comic books, not knowing when or where the next issue will turn up. That said, I'm of the opinion that these rough edges are not nearly as serious in their impact as some may think, and to players in the right mindset, even add to Gravity Rush's considerable charm. The writing, dialog and story all emphasize Kat's character as a somewhat hapless amateur superhero (think "anime Ms. Marvel with a different power set") just getting started in her crime-fighting career, and she's exactly the kind of person who might whiff on landing a gravity kick and go flying into a pile of boxes. Just in the way that deliberately "slow" controls can improve the atmosphere of a horror game like Amnesia, occasional finickiness and flubs reinforce Gravity Rush Remastered's sense of character (albeit unintentionally). In the end, Bluepoint deserves credit for managing to bring out the best in an already-pretty-good game, allowing PS4 owners the chance to experience the charm of Gravity Rush unhampered by the limitations of its original platform.  [This review is based on a retail copy of the game acquired by the reviewer.] UnderRail (PC)Developer: Stygian SoftwarePublisher: Stygian SoftwareReleased: December 18, 2015MSRP: $14.99
Gravity Rush Remastered photo
Falling with style
Gravity Rush is and remains one of the coolest games on the PS Vita, even three years after its original 2012 release. Unfortunately for fans of cool games, the PS Vita didn't get into nearly as many hands as Sony was ho...

Review: Oxenfree

Jan 15 // Nic Rowen
Oxenfree (PC [reviewed], Xbox One)Developer: Night School StudioPublisher: Night School StudioMSRP: $19.99Released: January 15, 2016 I say “horror” in quotes because the actual spook-factor of Oxenfree isn't that high. This isn't an Amnesia-style gorefest or a Freddy's jumpscare marathon. Oxenfree trades in unease and tension more than outright scares. Think of it more like It Follows than Sleep Away Camp. It's an effective technique. Since you're not wading through blood and viscera at all times, the few moments of hard-hitting violence and terror are that much more jarring. Oxenfree starts with a group of teenagers having a party on an island tourist trap (and one-time military base) near their hometown. Testing out an urban myth involving radio signals and a spooky cave, they accidentally unleash a mysterious entity that seems to have a strange relationship to normal space and time and nothing but malicious intentions on them. The island destination is rendered in a gorgeous dreamlike art style of watercolors and soft light. The normally smooth picture-book aesthetic of Oxenfree's world makes it all the more unnerving when the entity breaks its way into reality with Tron-like neon colors and sharp geometric shapes hanging unnaturally in the sky. It soaks it all in a phenomenal synth-heavy soundtrack from SCNTFC (Galax-Z, Sword & Sworcery) that perfectly alternates between wistful and unnerving. Let me say it plainly, Oxenfree is very light on gameplay. There are no real puzzles to solve, no panicky QTEs to click on, no last-minute boss fight to clumsily fumble through. This is a game about talking. The single most mechanically meaningful thing you do in the game is respond to dialogue options in Aaron Sorkin-style “walk-and-talk” conversations that alternate seamlessly between sarcastic teen bonding, stick-a-knife-in-it awkward stand-offs, and genuinely touching moments. Each conversation option is represented by word balloons you pick with a touch of a button. The tone of the response is hinted at by the phrase in the word balloon similar to the system used in Mass Effect (and done noticeably better than in Fallout 4, I might add). Unlike the galaxy-saving Shepard however, Alex's (the playable protagonist) dialogue isn't laced with heroic speeches or badass threats. She's a teenaged girl who had a lot on her shoulders before the whole spooky-possibly-haunted-island thing started happening and she carries herself like one. She jokes with her friends, gets freaked out, and argues over pointless trivia, like a real person who suddenly found themselves in an unreal situation would. There is no outwardly visible karma meter or “so-and-so will remember that” comments in the game, but your words have meaning. You dialogue choices will effect how the other kids see you and your relationship with them. Occasionally you come to linchpin decision moments that can take you down alternate paths in the game, but mostly the choices are subtlety baked into the experience. A nice change from the “pick blue for good, red for bad” dichotomy of many game's dialogue systems. These conversations are not done in cutscenes or discrete “talking moments,” they're the life blood flowing through the entire game. You chat while walking to the beach, cutting through the woods, while exploring an abandoned military base, and the conversation follows naturally. Jump across a chasm between two cliffs while idly chatting and your friends won't just keep talking about the weather, they'll stop to recognize how badass/insane what you did just was. Same goes for conversations interrupted by spooky transmissions, or sudden, jarring hallucinations. Its easy to picture this backfiring. If the characters were tiresome, boring, or two-dimensional, a game all about talking to them would be a painful experience. Thankfully, the teens of Oxenfree are refreshingly likable. With an excellent script behind some amazing voice-over performances, the teens never wear out their welcome. They're smart, funny, and surprisingly sensible (they mostly just want to get the hell away from the island rather than work out its mysterious history). While the setup is as off the shelf as it gets, the characters don't fit into the Breakfast Club-defined roles you might expect. Alex is a bright girl trying to redefine herself after a life-shattering loss. Her brand new half-brother Jonas (yeah, she's meeting him for the first time at a kegger, it's as awkward as it sounds) is from a bad neighborhood and is implied to have spent a little time in jail. But, he's deeper and more vulnerable than the smoldering bad boy you might be picturing. Best friend Ren is a weird little guy who deals with stress with (actually funny) humor, harbors at least one secret crush, and may or may not be seeing a therapist depending on how seriously you want to take a few throwaway lines. Clarissa is the group's mean girl, always ready with a sharp barb or cutting remark in what is a fairly blatant display of a maladjusted defense mechanism. And Nona, a shy and seemingly unassuming girl who nonetheless has spent most of the semester in suspension, is probably the least developed of the characters but reveals some hidden depth if you make an effort to engage her. In what may be the game's greatest accomplishment, these kids are actually fun to hang around (other than the possible exception of Clarissa). In most horror movies, I usually end up rooting for the machete-wielding maniac after being introduced to the typical gaggle of jerks and dummies of a horror movie cast. In Oxenfree, I couldn't help but be charmed by the gang. When the supernatural creeps of the island finally started getting rough with them, it put a crinkle in my brow and an uncomfortable bend in my spine. I was tense, unsettled. Oxenfree never had to spring a jump scare on me or splatter the screen with blood to wrap me around its finger. It just had to make me care about the kids. Once I did that, it owned me. Aside from talking, the other main thing you do in Oxenfree is tune through a radio. At any time, you can pop out your handy pocket radio and scroll through the channels, finding static, 1940s big band tunes, and the occasional Satanic murmuring from some hell dimension. How very Silent Hill. Scattered throughout the game are various opportunities to tune into tourist information stations that reveal background about the island (and hopefully clues as to what you're up against), as well as secret audio anomalies that function as the game's de facto collectable. These are broadcasts that seem to be coming from another time or an alternate reality. Call me a sap, but I thought the anomalies were genuinely disquieting. It brought to mind the same spooky quality as listening to a numbers station broadcast, or the Jonestown tapes. This is a laid-back game. The vast majority of the experience is just wandering around with your friends, dialing through the radio for the occasional audio anomaly while chatting about school, gossip, and how utterly screwed up the situation you're in is. It's short. You can probably play through it in a single evening if you didn't care about seeing alternate story paths or collecting anomalies. If you wanted to be dismissive and sneer at Oxenfree as another “walking simulator” there isn't much that could be said in its defense. But personally, I think it is an excellent walking simulator. Oxenfree is a walking simulator that is confident enough in its characters and dialogue to bet that you won't mind just hanging around with them. It believes in the sinister low-ebb horror of the island to worm its way into your mind without having to crutch on a jumpscare every few minutes. It knows that its atmosphere and style will be enough to make you want to wander through its forests and dilapidated military bases. It's a walking simulator you should play. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Oxenfree Review photo
Dark signals
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A group of teenagers head to a remote, nearly abandoned tourist trap for a night of wild partying. Not long after they get there though, odd things start to happen. Unsettling things. ...

Review: The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human

Jan 15 // Ben Davis
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (PC)Developer: YCJYPublisher: YCJYReleased: January 19, 2016MSRP: $9.99 The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human tells the story of the last surviving human being, thrown into an unknown year in the distant future via a wormhole. All that is left of our civilization on Earth has been entirely submerged under the ocean. Crumbling cities, broken machines, and other remnants of human civilization are still present, slowly decaying in the sea. The world is now thriving with sea life, as huge fish swim about the dilapidated structures and aquatic plants grow out of control. The only clue about what happened in the past are holo-tapes containing the last recorded information of humanity from the year 3016. This is not a story of hope. As the last one left, you have no way of repopulating the world. Humans had their time, and it's over now. The only thing left to do is try and figure out what happened and live out the rest of your days attempting to make the most out of your present situation. [embed]334534:61880:0[/embed] The player character passes the time aboard a submarine, exploring the serene ocean depths, floating among the thriving sea life, and looking out at remnants of the past. There seems to be very little danger in the surrounding waters; groups of angry giant clams here and there, some pipes spilling out corrosive gases, a few floating sea mines, but for the most part it's smooth sailing. That is, until the last human encounters The Worm. Much like Shadow of the Colossus, there are very few threats in the world of The Aquatic Adventure aside from the bosses. The game compensates by making every boss fight unique, challenging, and memorable. Conquering these massive sea beasts will require puzzle-solving skills, strategy, quick reflexes, and most of all perseverance. The submarine will most likely be destroyed many times before a boss will finally be defeated, but with enough observation and planning, any obstacle can be overcome. Thankfully, the submarine's abilities will take some of the edge off of the difficulty of boss fights. A damaged hull will slowly repair itself automatically over time, so as long as the sub stays out of danger long enough, it can come back full force in the heat of battle. Upgrades can also be found scattered throughout the sea, offering new weapons, tools, improvements to the hull, and more. So if a player is having a particularly rough time with a certain boss, a little exploration might result in better equipment to make the fight a bit easier. There are eleven boss fights in total, but most of them can be fought in any order the player chooses. In the vein of Metroid, new areas can be opened up with upgraded equipment. Every time a new item is acquired, it's usually a good idea to fully explore the map to figure out all possible options for progress and decide which boss to take on next. Although there are a few instances where the player does not have a choice, and the only option for escaping is to fight their way out. The real heart of The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human comes from the graphics. While the thought of exploring a large map with very few threats may seem uneventful, I almost didn't even notice most of the time due to the entrancing sprite art covering every inch of the map. The environments and sea life are so detailed and well animated that they seem to come to life in movement. Everything looks painstakingly hand drawn, with personality oozing out of every object. I had to spend a few moments in each new area just admiring everything around me, from the tangles of seaweed and peaceful (yet sometimes startling) sea creatures to the ruined edifices and malfunctioning electronics. While it looks beautiful even in screenshots, I honestly don't think still images do this game the justice it deserves. To add to the whole charming ambiance, the wonderful electronic soundtrack helped to capture the beauty and strangeness of an underwater world, while also ramping up the tension during boss encounters. Other visual effects added to the charm as well, like how the screen slightly tilts depending on the direction the submarine is moving, the subtle flickering of text to indicate it's being viewed on a monitor of some kind, and what looks like handwritten text which appears upon arrival to a new area. All of these little details add up to give The Aquatic Adventure its own unique flair. If I could offer suggestions for improvement, I do think there needs to be more map functionality. Especially for a game where backtracking is important, it would have been nice for certain obstacles to be highlighted on the map, like green lines to indicate vines which need to be chopped or grey bars to specify doors that can be opened. Of course, obstacles leading to secret areas can be kept hidden from the map, so that only the keenest explorers will find them. I might have also liked a manual save option, for those instances where I was killed by a part of the environment, requiring me to navigate large parts of the map all over again to get back to where I left off, although the fast-travel system did help with that somewhat. Lastly, I did encounter a few annoying bugs while playing, but thankfully they were fixed very quickly. I really enjoyed my time with The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human. It may be a bit on the short side, especially for players who are able to take down the bosses with relative ease, although most players are probably looking at about six to seven hours of playtime. But in that short amount of time, it manages to pack a satisfying amount of action, tranquility, and exploration into a concise, captivating adventure. Just don't be afraid to dive too deep into the ocean depths, no matter what horrors might lurk in the dark abysses below. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Aquatic Adventure review photo
Steve Zissou will outlive us all
Unlike many others out there, underwater environments tend to be some of my favorite areas in video games. So when something like The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human comes along which takes place entirely underwater, I ca...

Review: Rick and Morty: Pocket Mortys

Jan 13 // Chris Carter
Pocket Mortys (Android, iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 6])Developer: Big Pixel StudiosPublisher: Adult Swim GamesMSRP: Free (with microtransactions)Released: January 14, 2016 There's no beating around the bush here, this is a complete and utter Pokémon clone. No, I don't mean that it's a cute parody with subtle references and mechanical influences -- I mean it's literally a Pokémon game with Rick & Morty's world injected in. Presentation-wise it gets the job done, as each type of Morty (read: Pokémon) is fairly unique, and although there aren't full voiceovers and cutscenes, there are some original quips by way of Justin Roiland, who voices both Rick and Morty. As a clone, it features an old school turn-based RPG style battle system (with options for attack, item, switch, and run). Attacks even have AP, and you can capture wild Mortys with a Pokéball Manipulation Chip -- I mean, they aren't even necessarily trying to be funny about it. Pocket does feature "types," but instead of elemental themes it follows the bite-sized rock, paper, scissors style, which predictably counter each other. Hell there's even a bank and Pokémon Morty [healing] Center (though in the case of Pocket, the former also has an SMT-like character combination feature). You know what though? It all actually works, even on the mobile platform. I wish the d-pad were a bit more adaptive (it's basically tethered to one part of the screen), but it's really easy to select each battle and menu option with just a quick tap that I don't really pine for a proper tactile control method. The hub is well designed and easy to get around, with a square-like layout and plenty of helpful shops. Peppered in alongside of the core campaign is a series of sidequests as well (basically item fetch quests), coupled with a rather deep crafting system. In terms of the flow, the gist is that our duo is stuck in a hub world in an alternate dimension, with their portal gun confiscated. To earn it back Rick has to prove himself to a council of Ricks -- all of whom have their own Mortys to do battle with. Of course there's a time-gating catch, as the player will need to earn badges (ha) to unlock each subsequent Rick fight. Think of it like the Elite Four, except in this case, there are six Ricks. Early on, jumping into each zone was a rush, and I couldn't wait to see what types of Mortys and Ricks awaited me. Mini Mortys, Stray-Cat Mortys, Evil Rabbit Mortys -- all of them come complete with their own set of abilities and such, and capturing them to find a well-rounded team was a ton of fun. Except, said loop eventually grows stale after you beat the third Rick council member or so, as Pocket basically says "get more badges, bitch," and forces you to grind it out to see the ending. Because with Pocket Mortys, every zone (which features one possible badge with a Rick fight at the end) is a randomized dungeon of sorts. At first it's exhilarating, diving into the unknown and finding more Mortys along the way, but the tedium sets in after you've seen all the biomes and settings available. While I initially played three hours straight (which is an accomplishment for a free mobile game), once the fatigue set in I resorted in taking frequent breaks. One could argue that this is totally cool for a mobile experience, but it could have at least broken up some of the monotony. Having said all that, the game manages to be fun throughout in spite of this roadblock that will inevitably turn some people off. Okay, so it's free, is there a catch? Sort of. The microtransaction scheme is twofold. First, you can watch videos (ads) for extra currency, which is used to buy items from the in-game store. It's a strategy that a lot of games are using these days, and for the most part, it's fairly inoffensive. Where Pocket kind of gets me irked is the second scheme, which are good old fashioned microtransactions that grant you tickets to exchange for better items and even new Mortys. Sure you can still earn tickets occasionally (mostly by beating an "Elite" member), but the fact that both of these strategies co-exist does get in the way somewhat. Now, I'm not the type of person who automatically burns things at the stake for microtransactions merely on principle, especially if they ultimately are optional, and that's how I felt with Pocket Mortys. Not once did I feel the need to spend money, and although I was tempted to watch an ad or two to earn enough to buy an extra potion for a boss fight in one zone, the realization that I could just die, go back to the hub without penalty, and move on to another random zone didn't sting in the slightest. Pocket Mortys, like many episodes of the show, is a true roller coaster. It has a lot of highs, a ton of lows, and that may not appeal to everyone. For me though, I feel like I got my money's worth, and it made the wait for the next season of the show (which still has no set premiere window) that much easier. [This review is based on a retail build of the free game provided by the publisher ahead of launch.]
Rick and Morty review photo
Gotta ::burp:: 'em all, Morty
I only started watching Rick & Morty halfway into the second season several months back, but after catching the first few episodes, I immediately burned through all of it. There's something about the show's sick sense of ...

Review: Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India

Jan 12 // Chris Carter
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed]) Developer: Climax StudiosPublisher: UbisoftReleased: January 12, 2016MSRP: $9.99 In this tale players will assume the role of Arbaaz Mir -- a cocksure assassin who has just stolen the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a Piece of Eden. The year is 1841, and Arbaaz is caught up in your typical Assassin vs. Templar antics in the brand new setting of India. The narrative mostly takes a backseat, with various puzzles and combat (or rather, the option to avoid combat) challenges to face along the way, and little in the form of exposition or world building. It's...serviceable, much like China, in that the story doesn't really leap out of the screen, but it also doesn't get in the way. India keeps inline with China's unique visual style that looks like it could be housed in an art gallery, but with more vibrant hues and beautiful pastels than the last iteration. Often times I'd stop and ogle at the landscape, which is something I rarely do in recent 2D titles -- but then again, Ubisoft usually nails it in that department (Rayman, Child of Light). In case you're wondering, it's still following the same stealth platformer format from China, so don't expect a whole lot. Levels are very linear in nature, even if specific sections do have a number of different solutions (like whistling to distract guards, going around them entirely with the grappling hook, and so on). Once again the actual platforming mechanics are sound, and the "stealth button/run button" format translates unusually well to the 2D plane. That smoothness starts to grate though once you've made your way through similar looking labyrinthine halls, fighting the same types of enemies over and over. [embed]333470:61826:0[/embed] India still discourages combat and proclaims stealth king, which will probably polarize a few of you out there looking for constant fights. The game punishes you with a low health pool and a limited amount of combat tools, so if you are adverse to stealth you may want to sit out for this series. Personally I revel in the ability to not go in guns (or blades) blazing, so the style suit me quite well, especially with the increased emphasis on the grappling hook. Once the story is all said and done there's a New Game Plus, and a "New Game Plus Hard" option to storm through. Thankfully though Ubisoft added in another element to India in the form of challenge rooms, which are basically in the same surrealistic "VR" style as past entries, with time-based objectives to complete. Sure it's the same old song and dance for Assassin's Creed, but it's nice to have something extra to do, even if there's only six of them. Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India isn't a whole lot different compared to China, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your prior experience. It sports a slightly less interesting character and setting, but the core experience is replicated, and the addition of a few gameplay tweaks as well as the aforementioned challenge mode ensures that it's on the level. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Assassin's Creed review photo
Hide and Sikh
When the Chronicles series was announced, my response was mixed. I mean, it's cool that we're getting to see new settings outside of the usual suspect after all, but by that same token, I'd rather see those new areas in a fully-fledged 3D game. These Prince of Persia inspired 2.5D gaidens (including last year's China) are the next best thing though, albeit with some provisos.

Review: Tharsis

Jan 11 // Patrick Hancock
Tharsis (PC [reviewed], PS4)Developer: Choice ProvisionsPublisher: Choice ProvisionsMSRP: 14.99Release Date: January 12, 2016 Tharsis puts players in command of a crew en route to Mars where everything possible is going wrong. It sets the tone early in the tutorial by having a crew member straight up die. In fact, every new adventure begins with that crew member dying, which I find morbidly hysterical, especially considering how often I've started new games. In between each "turn" is a small, still-image cutscene that explains a little bit of how the plot is progressing. They play every playthrough, and while they are easy to skip, it's a minor annoyance to constantly be skipping them after every single turn. The plot unfolds as quick as the player is good; the further a player gets, the more story they reveal. Generally, this will be a very slow drip of new information, since it's very fucking difficult. Tharsis is essentially a virtual board game. The objective is to make it to Mars, which is ten weeks away, where each turn is a single week. The thing is, shit goes wrong on the ship every single turn. With the four surviving crew members, players must roll dice to fix the many issues plaguing the ship. I'm talking literal dice rolls here, as in you see the dice roll and bounce off the edges of the screen until they stop. [embed]331702:61810:0[/embed] There are seven sections of the ship, and each of them have a specific purpose. The Med Bay can heal crew members, the greenhouse grows food, and so on. In order to perform these actions, a crew member must be in that area and roll their dice. If that dice roll fits a predetermined requirement, the player can use those dice to complete the action. To grow food, for example, a player needs two or three identical dice. To heal in the Med Bay, a single die of a five or six will do. Eating food will restore dice, which is crucial to survival. Growing food, however, is hard to fit in. The alternative is cannibalism. Dead crew members will soon be available as food, if the player wishes to indulge. Human meat isn't as beneficial as grown food, since it reduces the max health of the crew member by one, but it's more available. Players can even elect to kill crew members in order to get more human meat. A decision like this should carry a lot of emotional baggage with it, but the fact is that it really doesn't. It's terrible to think about, but never quite hits home in an impactful way. Dice can also be put towards research, which will grant players extra actions and saving graces. The research bar can accept six dice - one for each possible result. Each die placed on the bar grants a research point. If at any point the player chooses to use their research for an extra action, like instantly restoring ship health, those points are removed. If the bar is completely filled, the points are kept but the dice are removed. Mechanically, this is a great way to not waste many extra dice that would otherwise be lost. Each crew member also has a specific action they can perform. Performing these actions is similar to the module actions: rolling a die that fits a predetermined requirement allows players to use it for a crew action. All these actions fall in line with the crew member's title: the Doctor heals other members, the Engineer repairs the ship, and so on. Extra crew members can be unlocked by hitting certain goals through every playthrough. These are lofty goals, like eating 300 pieces of human remains, but it is nice to have something to always be working towards, even if it is often unintentionally. These characters aren't necessarily better, as the "better" crew actions really just come down to personal preference. The ship itself is constantly under distress. New events of varying severity show up at the start of each turn, ranging from near-catastrophic to "eh, I'll get to it eventually." Events have "health," and when an event's health is completely repaired, the event is prevented. If an event is present at the end of the turn, its effect will occur until it is taken care of. A player repairs an event by rolling enough dice to reduce its health to zero. If an event has 12 health and a crew member rolls two sixes, great! The event can be taken care of. It doesn't matter how many dice rolls it takes to get rid of the event, just so long as it is gone before the end of the turn.  While rolling to clear an event, certain numbers of the die will have negative status effects associated with them: Stasis, Void, and Injury. If a rolled die matches the Stasis number, that die is frozen and cannot be re-rolled. If the Void number is rolled, that die disappears completely. Rolling the Injury number reduces the crew member's health. To prevent this, a resource called Assist can be gained. If the player has any Assists available, they will be used and nullify any of these status effects.  The problem is that Assists are used automatically, even when it isn't necessary. Let's say that an event only has two health remaining. A crew member might roll two dice: a two and a six. If the two has Stasis attached to it and the player has an Assist, then that Assist will be wasted on that die, since it was going to be used as a two anyway.  This issue comes up quite often, and is nothing but frustrating. Sometimes, two status effects will happen at once, one of which is clearly non-consequential, and the Assist will be wasted on the status effect the player doesn't care about. Knowing that Assists are automatic forces players to think about which astronaut they send to which module, but having the game completely take over an important resource eliminates too much player agency. While changing this would remove one element of strategy, it would add another that would alleviate a lot of frustration. It often feels that Tharsis relies too much on dice rolls. Overcoming intense obstacles often doesn't result in a feeling of accomplishment and pride, but one of happenstance and luck. It's likely intentional, to give the player the feeling that the situation is never really under control, but it's frustrating enough to destroy one's interest in trying again. That's not to say that the player has no impact on the results. There are very important decisions the player must make in order to help the crew survive. The order in which crew members go to tackle an event can change the impact of the turn. Sending in a Specialist first, who gets an extra re-roll, has a better chance of bringing down an events health than anyone else. Doing so can allow other members to have free dice available, which can in turn let them use their special ability to heal other members, repair the ship, or grow food. Dice are Tharsis' biggest resource, and mismanaging them will end the game very quickly. As I continued to play, I noticed just how important dice placement can be. Ideally, the player never wastes a die. Between crew abilities, module actions, event repair, and research, the player should be able to find a place for every single die, luck providing.  There's also the matter of using research abilities wisely. These can be used at almost any time, and they have saved my butt more than once. Evaluating the situation as a whole is crucial; it can be better to use research and crew abilities to repair a ship's health instead of getting rid of events. It's a short-term solution, but sometimes that's all you need. In between turns the player is forced to choose between different crew members' ideas. These often have positive and negative effects to them. One might add a piece of food but take away one health from every crew member, for example. There are little blurbs to go along with these decisions, but the written words make little to no sense in conjunction with the effects. This widens the disconnect between any attachment to the crew members and serves to remind the players that this is just a game. Not taking a crew member's idea can result in a loss of sanity for that crew member. As the sanity bar increases (which means they are losing sanity), their ideas will become worse and worse. Other events, like cannibalism and receiving injuries, also serve to increase the sanity bar. A playthrough ends when either no crew members are left or the ship's health is depleted. Early on, runs will likely last under ten minutes. As the player understands more and begins to utilize their resources a little better, runs will get slightly longer. A completed run will take approximately 30 minutes, depending on how much time was spent thinking. There's also a hard mode. But fuck that. Visually, it all looks pretty wonderful. Information is displayed clearly to the player and everything on the user interface is easy to understand while not being cluttered. Stasis and Void are displayed as two very similar colors, however, which makes it hard for colorblind players to notice the difference. The cutscenes are drawn while the game itself uses 3D models. The faces of crew members are a bit bleh, but while looking at the ship itself, all else is forgiven. There's a lot of small touches that both hurt and help. The cutscenes are always the same, and it becomes annoying to have to skip the cutscenes in between every turn. On the other hand, the narrator will be male or female, depending on which commander the player has. The popup that explains what crew idea choices are also pops up every single playthrough, which is another slight annoyance. Looking around the interiors, however, shows a strong attention to detail that really helps the ship come alive. Tharsis is a good way to spend 10-30 minutes to see what happens on the next journey. It's a very harsh battle against the unknown, and can be utterly soul-crushing. Perhaps too soul-crushing, actually. Players will, at times, feel so defeated and useless that playing again seems pointless. And maybe that's the point, considering the circumstances. I wouldn't recommend to marathon Tharsis in an attempt to complete its journey, but instead to boot it up every once in a while and hope for the best. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Tharsis Review photo
God damn, Mark Watney had it easy
Space is dangerous, everyone. If you weren't aware of this, just play Tharsis. If you wanna feel sad and hopeless, just play Tharsis. If you're known for always getting great dice rolls at tabletop night, definitely play Thar...

Review: That Dragon, Cancer

Jan 11 // Laura Kate Dale
That Dragon, Cancer (Ouya, PC [Reviewed])Developer: Numinous GamesPublisher: Numinous GamesMSRP: $14.99Released: January 12, 2015Rig: Intel Core i5-4690K @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, Windows 7 64-bit  That Dragon, Cancer is a two hour long, autobiographical exploration of creator Ryan Green's experience of having a young child diagnosed with cancer. At around twelve months old Joel Green, Ryan's son, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given only a few months to live. In spite of his short prognosis Joel lived for several more years, with That Dragon, Cancer exploring the time between diagnosis and Joel's eventual passing away. [embed]332930:61798:0[/embed] That Dragon, Cancer is an odd game to really break apart. When I initially saw it in demo form a few years ago interactions were largely restricted to pacing around a single room, hearing sincere voice acting from a father with a distressed son he could not help. The frustration of being unable to do anything, the pain of pacing this single space and the strength of the writing made this single room experience incredibly moving to experience.  When Cancer focuses on these deeply personal moments, it truly shines as an experience. Be it spinning a simple children's toy in order to hear the thoughts of adults in a room to feeding ducks while Joel's siblings ask questions about his stagnant development, the times where Dragon focuses on very direct interactive representations of what their family went through are definitely not only moving, but meaningful. Where Dragon seems to stumble is when it tries to either abstract its representations of emotional themes, or introduce interactive elements that may not mesh with the tone of the surrounding narrative. With the exception of an incredibly well handled video game within the video game, most sections added to introduce additional video game elements ultimately detract from the experience, rather than adding to it. There's nothing to be gained by breaking up a somber scene with a poorly made, three lap cart race in a hospital with no other racers and no consequences for performance. That scene for example breaks the tone and impact of a much larger scene, feeling like it does so purely so the game is less likely to be labelled a walking simulator. While a few of these moments successfully convey themes, many of the successful scenes also drag on far longer than is sensible, damaging the pacing of the narrative considerably. I feel like this would be a much stronger experience if many of these moments of forced interaction were removed. That small video game inside the video game however? Really damn impressive. There's also a scene involving floating on balloons that, while overly long, did have some value. When Cancer is focusing on telling a direct narrative about a family's life with a son they knew was dying, it truly is an incredible experience. From the ways it conveys the highs and lows of life to the exploration of how Christianity fits into a family expecting bereavement, from the discussions of the future to the enjoyment of the present, it really is an awe inspiringly beautiful experience when it's focused. As a monument to a son, it's incredibly touching to see. The final scenes of the game were a beautiful bookend to a life cut short and without a doubt left me in tears for quite some time. That Dragon, Cancer is a beautiful experience, if one that would have benefited considerably from having content cut to improve the flow, pacing, and tone.
That Dragon, Cancer photo
Beautifully inconsistent
It's a very odd experience as a critic, reviewing something like That Dragon, Cancer. A product that is so clearly an incredibly personal work of art created from a place of sincerity, but also a consumer product being sold t...

Review: Pony Island

Jan 10 // Laura Kate Dale
Pony Island (PC)Developer: Daniel Mullins Games Publisher: Daniel Mullins GamesMSRP: $4.99Released: Out NowRig: Intel Core i5-4690K @ 3.5 GHz, with 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, Windows 7 64-bit  Pony Island is a game about escaping from a badly coded non stop runner arcade title created by the devil to steal human souls. While in any other experience that premise would be some late game spoiler, here it's a given. You're playing a very basic game, and you're routinely prompted to give it your soul. You have to play through the game, find weak points, then attempt to hack your way out to safety. Where Island succeeds is from this narrative starting point, as it constantly finds ways to surprise, create and evolve through play. Mechanics are added to your tool set to keep the challenge fresh, without any puzzle ever getting too tough or overwhelming. Characters are introduced just far enough apart to ensure the pacing stays solid and narrative twists strike a solid balance where the plot is constantly moving forward, but never feels rushed. [embed]333085:61803:0[/embed] While the narrative on the surface is about a very literal attempt to escape from the clutches of Lucifer, its real charm comes from tackling themes that are much more grounded in reality. From the struggles of appeasing and engaging audiences as a creator to the frustrations involved in trying to first learn a creative skill, there are a bunch of really interesting and relatable themes explored through what on the surface is a story about a demonic pony game. While you spend a lot of your time in game trying to manipulate code to break apart a working machine, the plot uses this set of mechanics to explore some connected themes in ways I found incredibly interesting. You may have by now noticed that I am somewhat talking around the specifics of Island in this review, and a lot of that is intentional. While the overall plot isn't a spoiler, the value in Pony is experiencing the specifics for yourself. As you work your way through an unsettlingly self aware machine, the methods used to prevent your departure had me glued to my seat and my screen. Pony Island messes with players in unexpected ways that stuck with me for days. It took a number of unexpected turns that caught me off guard and was constantly filling me with a sense of inescapable unease. It wasn't on my radar at all before it released, but at under $5 it's a wonderful use of two hours of your life. So long as you like the idea of Satan trying to steal your soul post purchase.
Pony Island photo
Consistently surprising and intelligent
Over the last couple of years, some of my favourite games to come out of the indie scene have been the games that play around with expected genre conventions in new and interesting ways. From The Stanley Parable messing with ...

Review: Chiptune Champion

Jan 08 // Jed Whitaker
Chiptune Champion (PC [reviewed])Developer: Blake GarnerPublisher: Blake GarnerMSRP: $9.99Released: January 8, 2016 If you're like me then you grew up playing the NES where chiptunes were the norm, then you became a teenage pirate and you'd get distracted by keygen music, and now you're an adult and you just have a general love of chiptune and enjoy purchasing games and music to support artists. If so, you may want to give Chiptune Champion a play then, as it is filled with some of the best chiptunes out there from artists such as Rymdkraft, Carf Darko, and Savestates, with 40 songs in total. The whole presentation is bare-bones, but it gets the job done. Notes come from the top of the screen and the appropriate number key needs to be held while pressing the enter key on time, very similar to how Guitar Hero and Rock Band are played. The graphics are about what you'd expect from a 16-bit style game, and there isn't an option to have the game fill the whole screen, instead full screen puts a black box on the outside of the screen. Music continues to play regardless of if you hit the notes or not, but an obnoxious sound effect plays loudly if you miss a note or play one at the wrong time. I checked the options to see if the sound effect could be turned down or off, but no such options exist.  [embed]332764:61786:0[/embed] The developer suggests holding your keyboard vertically and facing away from yourself while playing, but I found it was easier to remap the keys to home row and play with my keyboard in its natural position. That said, my keyboard has a bit of extra plastic at the top that makes it a bit more extended, so your experience may vary based on your hardware. Once my keys were remapped I had a far better experience but was still only able to play on the easiest difficulty only requiring four keys. The medium and expert difficulties have you playing five keys, and ramp up the difficulty significantly, so if you're looking for a challenge you'll certainly find it there. There are also weekly and overall leaderboards per song, if you're into that kind of thing. On top of the included 40 songs is the ability to create your own and share them via Steam Workshop. Custom songs can be created, imported and exported right from the game, so even if your favorite chiptune artist isn't included you could technically create their tracks in the game or beg them to (looking at you Alphadeus.)  While the presentation leaves a bit to be desired, the music is on point and often had me humming along before the songs were even over, which is probably the most important factor to any music and rhythm game. If you're a fan of chiptunes and want a Guitar Hero-like experience on PC then Chiptune Champion is easily recommendable, it sure beats jumping through the hoops required to get Frets on Fire to work on modern technology.  [embed]332764:61786:0[/embed]
Review: Chiptune Champion photo
Keygen Music Hero
I love chiptune music and I love music and rhythm games, so of course I had to play Chiptune Champion, which combines them both.  It might not be perfect, and it might not be much to look at it, but it has its charm. 

Review: Hardware: Rivals

Jan 06 // Chris Carter
Hardware: Rivals (PS4)Developer: SCE Connected Content GroupPublisher: Sony Computer Entertainment EuropeMSRP: $19.99Released: January 5, 2016 Rivals boils down to jeeps vs. tanks, with only a scant four vehicles (two in each category) to choose from at the start. The former sports a Twisted Metal-like machine gun and the latter carries a turret into battle, and your typical host of subweapons can be picked up across the battlefield. I'm talking long range plasma scatter shots, a short-range laser beam, and surface-to-air missiles with lock-on capabilities. All of them are coupled with bright animations and satisfying sound effects, which give them quite a bit of impact when playing. The controls are very easy to pick up, basically consisting of acceleration (R2 or X, which is convenient) and braking procedures, along with dedicated buttons for primary and subweapons. Jeeps in particular are much easier to acclimate to, since they have relatively loose controls, great acceleration, and a spread-based gun. Tanks on the other hand take some getting to used to, as they're predictably clunky, and the turret itself can be rather slow-moving as you seek out enemies. Since most of the damage is done by subweapons anyway, tanks feel a bit clipped in that regard, but I've seen success from both play styles. Speaking of the subweapon system, despite the fact that they all have their own distinct look and feel, acquisition is a bit off and poorly paced. For starters, you can only stack subweapons, and by picking up a new type, you'll replace your previous one. It's jarring to say the least, since the vast majority of car combat games allow you to cache an entire arsenal to use at your disposal. Team games with lots of players on-screen can be sluggish as a result, because if everyone is picking up all the subs you're stuck with your primary. This is exacerbated by the fact that drivers don't have unique weapons to set them apart from the crowd. [embed]331641:61717:0[/embed] There's also the problem of supers, which drastically alter the battle in favor of whoever attains the coveted power-up. While one stage has a cool gimmick that forces players underground to avoid a missile strike, another features a cheap "frozen" mechanic that places ice on the ground and punishes them unless they find some way to get some air. The latter feels very unbalanced in every game I've experienced, because the slow effect happens almost instantaneously, and it's tough to get to safety. Levels are layered and built around these concepts, which is nice, and despite the fact that there are only four arenas at present, all of them are suitably fun to roll around in. I suspected this would be a free-to-play heavy game with microtransactions but that isn't the case (it's a $19.99 release that's merely free on PlayStation Plus this month). The perk and upgrade system (featuring "Salvage" as currency) is rather fair and inoffensive at the very worst. Players will earn a decent amount of Salvage after every match, win or loss, which is enough to alter the state of their car or driver. It's a carrot on a stick to encourage leveling up and grinding, but again, it's par for the course for modern shooters and doesn't detract from Rivals as a whole as much as the aforementioned issues do. Most of the fun (if not all of it) will be derived from online play, because there aren't really any single player modes outside of the tutorial. In fact the whole shebang is basically online, as there's no split-screen or local play, and no support for bots. The four included modes basically all boil down to "deathmatch" with team variants (outside of one domination mode). There is support for private matches and events are on the way, with the first one debuting later this week. During my time with Rivals games were relatively lag free, though I did notice some connection issues at launch that prevented me from playing for roughly half an hour. There are 30 challenges available, which include looking at levels from a different perspective (like racing), but it's not a separate mode -- they're more like achievements for existing matches. It's baffling, as these simplistic alterations of existing arenas would have been a great way to break up the fatigue of online play. Hardware: Rivals has a good core concept and engine, but it needs some work around the edges. A lot of little things added up for me the more I played it in an increasingly annoying fashion, most of which can be fixed with proper updates. [This review is based on a retail build of the game acquired for free by way of PlayStation Plus.]
Hardware: Rivals review photo
Back to the toolbox
Car combat is one of those genres that just doesn't get no respect these days. Even 2012's Twisted Metal couldn't revitalize the franchise, and for some time, the genre has been on life support mostly by way of indie developers. So when I heard about Hardware: Rivals, I had to jump in and see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I doubt this one will usher in a new era of glory.

Review: Minecraft: Story Mode: A Block and a Hard Place

Jan 05 // Darren Nakamura
Minecraft: Story Mode: A Block and a Hard Place (iOS, Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: December 22, 2015 (Mac, PC)MSRP: $4.99, $24.99 (Season Pass)Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit Where the first two episodes in the season induced apathy, this one causes ambivalence. It's a fine distinction: I was struggling to care about Jesse and his friends at first; now I care enough but find myself disappointed with the final result. For every beat Minecraft: Story Mode hits well, it stumbles once or twice. On the one hand, the more deliberate progression of this episode can be a good thing. It opens up the gameplay to include actual (albeit easy) puzzles along with the standard dialogue trees and quick-time events. Also, without lulls in the action, it could be bombastic to the point of grating. If it's always high energy, then it's all the same. On the other hand, the plodding of the first half of this episode is as dull as can be. There's a horse travel montage near the beginning illustrating just how far it is to get to the Farlands, and protagonist Jesse has the option of the classic whine "Are we there yet?" Even with the cuts of the montage, I felt the same. I get it; it's far. Let's move on. [embed]327542:61558:0[/embed] Once the action finally does pick up at the end, it still treads a questionable path. The full story about The Order of the Stone is revealed, and it plays out as foreshadowed. It's always a little awkward when a story treats something like an earth-shattering reveal when most would see it coming from the hints in previous episodes. Perhaps if I had led the life Jesse did, it would have been more impactful. Then, almost as if checking off all the Telltale boxes, we get another character death. This loss feels more important than the one in the third episode, since it's a likable character. Death in children's entertainment is nothing new (see: Bambi, The Land Before Time, Transformers [1986]), but it generally comes with a purpose. While we'll have to wait for the fifth episode, my sneaking suspicion is the only reason this death was written in was a cynical attempt at eliciting emotion. The really strange part of the whole scene is that in the middle of the mourning (when I have a full pout on my face), Story Mode lets loose a visual gag referencing the source material. Admittedly, it's probably the funniest thing in the whole episode -- so few of the jokes are worth even a chuckle -- but it feels wrong to have it punctuate the rest of the sad scene so bluntly. With the Wither Storm properly defeated, Jesse and the gang are proclaimed to be the new Order of the Stone, and A Block and a Hard Place ends with the vague promise of new adventures coming in the next episode. Unless it's tightly written and self-contained, I'm not interested. More likely, the last episode will open up a can of worms that won't get resolved until Season Two. This episode could very well be considered the finale for the first season. It wraps up the Wither Storm saga, it answers the questions about the Order of the Stone, and it delivers a semi-happy, hopeful ending for the crew. If only it did that without an utterly boring first half and the clumsy insertion of mandatory Telltale story elements, it might have also been a good ending. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft review photo
Denouement-craft
What a weird episode. After the high energy of The Last Place You Look, this one slows down the action shortly into it, and it doesn't really pick back up until the very end, which feels like the end of a season. But then, th...

Review: Amplitude

Jan 05 // Chris Carter
Amplitude (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: HarmonixPublisher: HarmonixMSRP: $19.99Released: January 5, 2016 (PS4) / TBA (PS3) Amplitude might be hard to master, but it's extremely easy to pick up. If you've played the series before you'll be able to jump right back in at the highest difficulty level, but for the rest of you, a quick five minute tutorial is all you'll need. Simply put, notes are laid down on tracks that symbolize instruments (or vocals), with L1, R1, and R2 (or Square, Triangle, and Circle) triggering the left, middle, or right notes respectively. Players are required to hit specific notes on beat on each track, then move to the next one. That's essentially it. There are a few more nuances like "Streaking" (combos, initiated by quickly moving and playing notes on a new track), and power-ups (simple concepts like clearing a track instantly), but you'll pick up the basics in no time. And in many ways, that's what's so great about Amplitude. The concept of a ship driving down a literal road that signifies your progress in a song is brilliant, and although it's been done a few times since the franchise's retirement, Harmonix does it best. All four difficulties (plus one bonus unlock) feel balanced, and the highest (Expert) is sufficiently challenging. Amplitude doesn't have a whole lot on offer though, content-wise. The campaign is a mere 15 songs long, consisting of a "concept album" created by Harmonix. It's a neat idea in theory, but it's over before you know it, and will definitely leave players wanting more. The fact that it cannot be played with friends and is required to unlock a handful of songs for multiplayer also isn't ideal. After finishing up the campaign, I had no desire to ever play it again. [embed]328939:61634:0[/embed] In that sense, the vast majority of your time will be spent in the free play mode, which supports up to four players in both versus or team play (1v3 or 2v2) situations. It's just as fun as it was in the past, as there's even more strategy involved with more ships on the track, since you can block out opponents from entering a track by claiming it first. With all of the power-ups being used in tandem, things can get hectic. It's Amplitude at its best, and truly successful players will need to watch their own track as well as peruse the entire board for the next move on top of counter-maneuvers, taking other ships into account. Where Amplitude really falls short is its lackluster 30-song soundtrack. You can take a look at the full setlist here to get an idea of what to expect -- spoiler: it's a lot of in-house work. Most of it is competent electronica crafted by the talented folks at Harmonix, but I just don't dig most of the vocal work -- either the performances or the lyrics -- and the majority of songs are not nearly as memorable as classics from the old games like Garbage's "Cherry Lips" or David Bowie's "Everyone Says Hi." I would play those songs for hours on end years back, but like the campaign, I'm willing to skip out on most of the new tracks. The original games weren't afraid to get out of their comfort zone with songs like "Dope Nose" from Weezer and "King of Rock" by Run-DMC, and the lack of risk-taking really shows with this new iteration. Another general issue I have is the way songs are doled out while playing. Tracks are locked behind the campaign as previously mentioned, but others require players to complete a ton of songs to access them. One even takes 60 plays to unlock! Why did Harmonix feel the need to do this? To gate the experience and ensure it lasts longer? It goes against the party-like nature of the game, and feels like a relic of the past. I wouldn't mind doing this if the reward were greater (like the original), but it isn't. Amplitude is a competent rhythm game that should provide lots of fun at parties, but the hamstrung tracklist is a severe detriment to its longevity. Harmonix was able to preserve the classic experience, but may have gone overboard in its effort to do so. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. I did not contribute to the Kickstarter campaign.]
Amplitude review photo
This Amp doesn't go to 11
Before there was an abundance of rhythm games out there with plastic peripherals, there were developers like Harmonix leading the way with controller-based experiences. Along with some long sessions of Gitaroo Man and Pa...

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: Endurance Mode

Jan 05 // Chris Carter
Rise of the Tomb Raider: Endurance Mode (Xbox One [reviewed], Xbox 360, PC, PS4)Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Xbox One), Nixxes Software (Xbox 360)Publisher: Microsoft (Xbox One, 360); Square Enix (PC, PS4)MSRP: $9.99Released: December 29, 2015 Endurance Mode is very light on story, offering up a shaky excuse for its existence which isn't even all that necessary. Lara, seemingly breaking from her travels, is in search of artifacts as is the evil mustache-twirling Trinity organization. Her job is to locate caves and recover said artifacts, then signal a helicopter and high-tail it out of there with as many goodies as she can grab. The catch is, players now have a food and warmth meter. Grabbing supplies such as bark and berries (or killing animals for food) actually has a point now, rather than a gamified version of an upgrade system like the core story. Hilariously, it even goes as deep as needing resources to light the signal fire to even escape, something I failed at in my first run. Ammo is often much more scarce a la Resident Evil as well, which is a nice touch -- I'd almost always find myself out of arrows during nearly all of my runs. Relic caves are actually mini-crypts, and are roughly 5-10 minute, bite-sized dungeons of sorts with random trap types. They're fun to play through, and don't overstay their welcome given their short length. Additionally, the rewards for actually exploring these caves are decent, including credit payouts for more Expedition rewards, and new weapons. I would prefer a lot of these elements to just be baked into the core game, but since I assume a lot of folks would complain that it's "too hard," we have this mode instead -- a risk-reward, arcadey score attack concept. It even features challenges (locate five crypts), which are an achievement-ception of sorts. At times, it feels like a rushed bit of DLC. There's only one Endurance sandbox for starters, and as a whole, the map feels rigid and forced -- with plenty of ways to corral players into specific zones. All of that cheapness generally washes away when you're in caves, but I would have preferred the overworld to be just as enjoyable. The best part is that it involves cards. If you're into that aspect of Rise, this is probably the best game type for it, in fact. For the uninitiated, cards modify the experience -- making it tougher or easier -- depending on what cards you play before match. For example, you can up your rewards by making enemies do more damage, or lower them by taking a specific outfit that automatically grants you the entire Brawler skill tree. Some cards are limited to a one-time use, but tons more, including a large pack that comes with the Survival DLC, are permanent. Deciding whether or not to buy Endurance Mode for Rise of the Tomb Raider is a pretty easy decision. Did you play and enjoy the Expeditions? If so, go ahead and grab it, if not, skip it.
Tomb Raider DLC review photo
Don't starve
I'm surprised how much mileage I've gotten out of Rise of the Tomb Raider. While most developers are keen on stuffing multiplayer into every single project, Crystal Dynamics did the right thing but nixing it in Rise, instead adding in a much more enticing Expeditions gametype. Endurance Mode isn't exactly as thrilling as it sounds, but it expands upon Expeditions quite well.

Review: Among the Sleep

Jan 04 // Caitlin Cooke
Among the Sleep (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PC)Developer: Krillbite StudioPublisher: Krillbite StudioMSRP: $14.99Released: December 8, 2015 (PS4), May 29, 2014 (PC) There is no combat in Among the Sleep; instead the game focuses on atmospheric exploration and simple puzzle solving. Just like being a real toddler, your options are limited to crawling, walking, grabbing, and running -- all of which mimic the slowness and clunkiness that would come with being a small child. Teddy, your beloved stuffed pal, accompanies you through the twisted and strange worlds you encounter in your quest to find mom, occasionally offering advice and kind words. You also have the option to hug Teddy, however, all this really does is provide dim light (and perhaps some comfort). There’s not much to do in terms of gameplay, but it’s less of a problem as there’s always some atmospheric happenstance occurring that keeps you occupied throughout -- whether it’s a creepy wail, a haunted toy moving in the wind, or some other oddity that leaves you with strange feelings (or perhaps an instinct to investigate further). The puzzle aspects aren’t complicated but are tied in well, keeping objectives moving along in a nice way and adding something a little extra that compliments the story. Dynamics switch it up a bit about halfway through the game, with a chapter consisting of a “run and hide” scenario where a mysterious woman chases you for unknown reasons. If she is successful in capturing you, it’s a game over, which seems to be the only way to truly die. In a later level, there is a similarly dark figure in a cloak who stalks about the area, summoned whenever a bottle breaks. At first it's unclear what to do in these situations as running away rarely works, but Teddy often shares hints to help you understand what’s to come. This isn’t your average jump-scare game -- the horror is much more ingrained into the levels and feels more genuine than a lot of games in the genre these days. The atmosphere builds upon slow tension and mystery rather than the thrill of a quick scare, which leaves a sense of dread -- especially considering the fact that you play a defenseless toddler. Ever-so-slight changes to the environment occurred from time to time which made me look and think twice if I thought I saw something different or if the looming suspense was playing tricks on me. Among the Sleep has some interesting level design with elements mixed together to give the areas a dream-like quality, teetering on the edge of fantasy and reality. One level consists of a winding forest full of children’s relics including looming owl sculptures, floating blocks, and an upside-down playhouse. Another takes place within a house that seems normal at first but slowly devolves into a twisted, confusing maze reminiscent of a scene from Labyrinth. Each area is creepy and disturbing in its own right, recalling elements from childhood in a twisted way which sets a disturbing background to the tense gameplay. Where the game really shines is in its inherent symbolism. Among the Sleep is constantly telling a story through its environment, depictions, and props despite there being little understanding of the direction it is taking, and there being little to no dialogue (with the exception of Teddy comforting you from time to time). It’s a work of art in that respect as the decor and slight changes to the environment can go unnoticed, but they all speak to certain aspects of the plot. It’s hard to understand what’s going on and where Among the Sleep is leading, but the lack of clarity in the direction actually enhances the storyline and feeds into the innocent nature of the character. The main elements of the story are tied together extremely quickly, almost abruptly, in the end to form a more complete picture. Multiple conclusions can be drawn as the ending is a bit open-ended, but without spoiling too much, I wasn’t a fan of the overall message it sent. This being said, Among the Sleep does a great job telling a story without being overt in its intentions. Despite the great storytelling mechanics, I can’t help but wish there was a little more to the game. When all was said and done it wrapped up in a handful of hours at most and I was left craving more. It’s especially a let down because the game invents such new ways of thinking about the horror genre, and it left so much to be expanded on. However, I honestly have to applaud the team for delivering a concise and complete story in that amount of time, and one that is so unique to the horror realm at that. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Among the Sleep photo
Don't let the bed bugs bite...
Childhood is a rare state of vulnerability that we only get to experience once in life -- full of bewilderment, innocence, and most of all an uncertainty of the unknown. Among the Sleep takes us back to this state, providin...

Review: Freedom Planet

Jan 03 // Jed Whitaker
Freedom Planet (PC [reviewed], Wii U)Developer: GalaxyTrail Publisher: GalaxyTrail MSRP: $14.99Released: July 21, 2014 (PC), October 1, 2015 (Wii U) Having started out as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game, Freedom Planet unsurprisingly looks, sounds, and plays similarly to the beloved original Sega Genesis trilogy with a hint of some of the newer Sonic games. However, instead of rolling or jumping onto enemies to kill them, the two main protagonists, Lilac and Carol, have a dedicated attack button that makes them punch and kick. Simply touching an enemy doesn't inflict damage; instead, they have to be attacking, which can be both a good and a bad thing; good because you'll almost never get slowed down, and bad for a similar reason, as levels end far too quickly. There are three characters on offer and each play differently. The main character is Lilac, a furry dragon who has a punch attack, a kick, a double jump that causes her to whirlwind enemies, and a mid-air dash that works similarly to the one from the classic Rocket Knight Adventures, which is by all means a good thing. The level design doesn't encourage the use of the mid-air dash very often, a shame since it's a unique move, but the times you do need it feel solid and thought out. The mid-air dash can also be used similarly to Sonic's spin dash to be able to instantly get a boost of speed from a dead stop. The other character available in the story-based adventure mode is Carol the wildcat. Carol still has the same kicks and punches as Lilac, but attempting to double jump with her will have her gliding through the air. Instead of being able to dash, Carol has a rapid-fire kick that inflicts a lot of damage in a short period of time. She can also wall jump, which allows reaching parts of levels that may not be accessible to Lilac. The biggest difference between Carol and Lilac, however, is that she can pick up gas cans littered across levels to spawn a motorcycle. Yes, you read that right, a motorcycle. When on her motorcycle, Carol zips around quickly, and can still punch and kick, while double jumping makes her spin attacking enemies multiple times per second. Best of all her motorcycle can drive up walls, which is as useful as it is comical.  [embed]330156:61704:0[/embed] Adventure mode is the story-driven mode that includes plenty of cutscenes with fully voiced lines, but it is also probably my least favorite mode. The story isn't all that interesting or original -- an evil villain with an army of robots steals a powerful stone -- but mostly because the other bits of the story are hard to follow and make little sense. On top of that, the voice acting is inconsistent both in terms of quality and fidelity; some lines sound like they were recorded on a professional setup and others almost sound like a Skype call recording. Even worse some of the cutscenes barely add anything of value to the story or development of characters, like a drawn-out slumber party scene between the protagonists in their clubhouse that would have felt more at home in a fan fiction story about the character's lives than in the actual game. Also, when playing as Carol, players will miss out on bits of the story, which makes for an even more confusing and disjointed experience, as the narrative was clearly written with Lilac in mind. While I appreciate the time and effort that went into the adventure mode, I think classic mode (which removes the tedious voice acting and cutscenes) makes for an all-around better experience. Classic mode also features a third playable character, Milla, who is apparently a basset hound. Personally, I don't see the resemblance, but I'll take the developer's word for it. Milla plays quite differently from our other heroes. Her attack button can be used to strike quickly with a single press causing a short green burst that works like a melee, or a long press spawns a shield. Milla's special attack spawns a green cube above her head that can be used as a long range laser beam or tossed as a short range projectile. When being used as a beam this attack propels Milla in the opposite direction; thus, it can be used to help navigate through the levels, along with her flapping ears that lift her up in the air for a short time when double jumping.  The level design feels familiar, as you're zipping from left to right, going up and down hills and around loops, while occasionally being forced to platform. However, levels do take their own spin (pun intended) on Sonic's formula; water levels allow swimming in any direction for instance, while other environments have buttons to physically press to advance. That said, no specific stage stands out, perhaps, as I mentioned before, because you breeze through them all so quickly. Each character has an exclusive level built around their unique abilities, but unfortunately, these aren't taken advantage of elsewhere. That said, if I had to rank these levels alongside the 16-bit Sonic games, I'd put them right between the second and third games for Sega Genesis, they are nowhere near as creative as anything seen in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but aren't as straightforward as Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Overall, Freedom Planet's adventure mode takes around two and a half hours to complete, which is a good amount of time for a retro-themed platformer. The only problem with this is I found myself spending most of my time battling bosses in later levels. Early bosses are fun and require little effort, while late game bosses are brutal and demand some skill. This is easily one of the worst parts of the whole experience. There are lots of cheap shots, and one hit kills. Many games by first-time developers have a tendency to be a bit more challenging to the average player, perhaps because the developers build a game for themselves.  While Freedom Planet isn't a perfect experience, it is still a very enjoyable and easily one of the best Sonic the Hedgehog-esque games I've played in years. If you were looking for something to scratch that 16-bit Sonic itch this might be it. Just don't say I didn't warn you about the questionable story, voice acting, and late game bosses. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Review: Freedom Planet photo
Sonic the Furhog
Here at Destructoid, we don't often review games originally released well over a year ago, but we are making a special exception for Freedom Planet. With a sequel just announced, I discovered we never reviewed the original, one of the best Sonic the Hedgehog-esque games I've played in years. Yiff out in the night with your fellow furries and prepare to go fast.

Review: UnderRail

Dec 30 // Josh Tolentino
UnderRail (PC)Developer: Stygian SoftwarePublisher: Stygian SoftwareReleased: December 18, 2015MSRP: $14.99 The good news is that most of UnderRail's potential flaws are largely dependent on how highly a given player regards the era of late-90s PC role-playing games. As an isometric-perspective, tile-based, post-apocalyptic RPG with turn-based combat, it's so much a student of the likes of Fallout and Arcanum that it's not surprising to see some of its fans call it "the game Fallout 3 should have been." That debate aside, UnderRail certainly plays as enjoyably as those older games with regard to its systems. Everything from its perk-and-skill-based character creation scheme to its action-point-governed combat system works as well as one might have expected from such a game. That style didn't need much fixing 18-odd years ago, and UnderRail proves the fact. [embed]328021:61683:0[/embed] This isn't to say that the game is devoid of new ideas. Nearly two decades of design hindsight do manifest in some ways, such as in a more intuitive approach to stealthy play, and an (optional) experience system that privileges exploration and thoroughness over combat prowess. Item crafting also makes an appearance in a more contemporary style, incorporating stat choices in ways that feel meaningful and rewarding for players who emphasize less combat-focused character builds. The addition of spell-like psionic abilities also gives the game a cyberpunk edge. Unfortunately, the places where UnderRail feels like it falls short are the ones where the games of Fallout's era hold up best: in atmosphere, art, and writing. As a world and a narrative, UnderRail feels less like its own setting than a slightly genericized spin-off of Metro 2033 (though technically UnderRail's development predates the release of 4A's shooter series). Humanity can no longer live on the surface of the planet for reasons, and have reconstructed society in the titular UnderRail, a vast network of subway lines and stations. Players begin as a newly accepted resident of South Gate Station, a neutral settlement on the borders of larger, more politicized factions. Starting out doing errands for the stationmasters, players uncover a larger conspiracy, following it to its roots. It works well enough, but the flat writing lacks the creative spark that made those older games stand out, igniting imaginations to fill the gaps where primitive graphical engines couldn't provide the details. As it stands, UnderRail's world to me is less an intriguing setting than a series of cave labyrinths filled with mannequins. A few other curious omissions -- like an overly vague quest journal (good luck remembering what you needed to do in a quest without writing it down), and the complete absence of a world or local map -- feel like steps back from those very old titles. It's an area where being conspicuously retro doesn't help.  Ultimately, UnderRail is a loving tribute act to the role-playing games of yesteryear, and in preserving those old forms and mechanics, also recaptures some of their soul and the unique sense of possibility afforded by those old, arcane systems. But it also falters when it comes to replicating the narrative and atmospheric qualities that cemented those old games as lasting classics in many players' minds.  If what you miss most about games like Fallout is the act of rolling your character, exploring a space from that particular camera angle, allocating your AP in combat, or tweaking a build after several runs' worth of trial and error, you'll be in good hands with UnderRail. Otherwise, it may be more productive to simply play the older games again. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Underrail Review photo
Home Under Da Riles
Dejan Radisic first began development of UnderRail, then known as Timelapse Vertigo, almost seven years ago. Originally a solo effort, and then later conducted by Radisic and his team at Stygian Software, the game proceeded a...

Review: Minecraft: Wii U Edition

Dec 29 // Patrick Hancock
Minecraft: Wii U EditionDeveloper: 4J Studios, Microsoft StudiosPublisher: Mojang ABReleased: December 17, 2015MSRP: $29.99 Given its status as a cultural phenomenon, I probably don't need to explain the basics of Minecraft in 2015. In case you've been experiencing the same thing as Brendan Fraser in Blast from the Past, I'll give a quick rundown. Players spawn into a randomly generated world created entirely out of individual blocks. It is up to them to harvest materials like wood, coal, and stone to create tools and survive the many dangers present throughout the game world. Personally, I guess I'm more of a Minecraft purist. I've been playing on and off since the alpha stages, and began to grow a bit disinterested with many of the later additions like brewing and enchanting. That being said, I absolutely love the purity of vanilla Minecraft. I've never added in dozens of PC mods to completely change the game or even alter the original tileset. To me, it's at its most elegant when it is untouched. The Wii U Edition does have some extra tilesets thrown in for players to switch between, and some extras to purchase on the eShop. New player skins are also offered for purchase, like The Simpsons, in case players don't want to be "Tennis Steve" or "Black Steve" -- oh wait, I mean "Athlete Steve." Naturally, the thought of playing Minecraft with the Wii U's GamePad is rather exciting. It could be used for inventory management, a second screen for cooperative play, easy crafting -- the possibilities are endless! Well, unless you're 4J Studios. Then the possibilities are one. The only benefit of having the GamePad is the ability for single-player Off-TV play. And even when players are using it for Off-TV play, it does not function as a touch screen for inventory management or anything else. When playing locally with a friend, players are forced into split-screen mode. Playing split-screen with the GamePad in hand feels like a complete waste of an opportunity.  The game runs fine, though snow tends to tank the framerate in cooperative play. Also, when playing locally, if one player opens up their inventory, there's a pause for a fraction of a second that is absolutely infuriating. It sounds like it should be barely noticeable, but just the opposite is true. I ended up calling out whenever I was making an important jump or otherwise being careful, so my partner wouldn't pause the game and screw me up. Speaking of pausing, trying to move items around with a joystick is awful. I'm sure this is what Xbox players have been dealing with for years, but man is it bad. The joystick emulates a mouse cursor, but everything snaps to the inventory grid, making it a painfully slow and annoying process to move things about. This is made worse by the fact that I'm literally holding a now-useless touchscreen in my hands. Playing online only works among friends. At first I thought the game was buggy, since the "Join" tab was completely unpopulated. However, a quick jaunt over to the Miiverse showed people posting screenshots of the main menu asking if anyone would like to friend up and play, making the situation very clear: you can only play online with people on your friends list. Well, okay then. Minecraft is still a beautiful game. The first time I heard C418's ambient soundtrack kick in, I was beaming. The first time night fell, I nervously holed up in the ground. Despite my adoration of the game, I ended up being frustrated at just about every aspect of the Wii U Edition. This is the epitome of a wasted-opportunity, bare-bones port. It's great that the game is coming to yet another audience, but this is hardly worth the investment for someone who already has the opportunity to play Minecraft elsewhere.  [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Minecraft: Wii U review photo
What's a GamePad?
Minecraft is quite the success story, isn't it? It went from one man's fun project to a household name in a seemingly small amount of time. Everywhere I go, I see Minecraft-related items: t-shirts, plushies, costumes. It...

Review: Sakura Santa

Dec 24 // Josh Tolentino
Sakura Santa (PC)Developer: Winged CloudPublisher: MangaGamerMSRP: $9.95Released: December 21, 2015 The aforementioned solitary souls seem to be situated smack in the target-audience sweet spot for Sakura Santa's story, as it revolves around Koji, an otherwise unremarkable college student whose main claim to fame is that he'll be lonely on Christmas eve. Yeah, that's really about it. Sakura Santa takes advantage of the fact that Christmas in Japan is more of a romantic holiday than a familial one, and kicks off with Koji visiting a nearby shrine to wish for someone to spend Christmas with. His wish is granted in short order, by fateful run-ins with Itsumi, an old childhood friend, Akina, a local fox spirit, and none other than one of Santa Claus' daughters. Then the only question is: Who shall he spend the time with? Now, before anyone gets any ideas, it's worth pointing out that Sakura Santa is not an adult game. The game's Steam store page takes care to stress that it contains "no sexual content." And they're technically right. There is no nudity, nor are there sex scenes in the whole of the game's two- to four-hour runtime. There is, however, plenty to ogle in the form of the three girls' character designs and the event scenes from the four available storylines. The art does stand out as the main draw, given that Sakura Santa has little else going for it. It's shorter and possessed of a much more bland premise than Sakura Spirits, and features a smaller cast to boot. Akina and Santa's stories quickly fall into too-similar "magical/alien girlfriend" templates familiar to anime, and though Itsumi's plotline also veers on the generic side, the story of trying to connect with an old flame after years growing apart is, at least, more inherently engaging. Then again, the other girl has fox ears and a short kimono. A dilemma, to be sure. Ultimately, Sakura Santa fails to stand out from the growing crowd of visual novels on Steam and elsewhere, except in the single respect of being a Christmas-themed story, coming out just in time for the holiday. Unfortunately, one would probably have to be as lonely as the game's protagonist to find a compelling reason to play. [This review is based on a digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.] Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WB Games MontrealPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $9.99Released: December 22, 2015
Sakura Santa Review photo
A Christmas Miracle for the Solo Set
When it comes to holiday traditions, Christmas-themed video games aren't as common as Christmas movies or television specials. For whatever reason, be it development times, commercial titles' higher average price tag, or the ...

Review: Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy

Dec 23 // Chris Carter
Batman: Arkham Knight: Season of Infamy (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: WB Games MontrealPublisher: Warner Bros.MSRP: $9.99Released: December 22, 2015 Infamy is a bit confusing. It's not an "Arkham Episode," that's detached from the story by way of a menu option. It's an actual extension of the narrative, taking place before Batman initiates the Knightfall Protocol (the ending), and it's integrated into the open-world campaign. In other words, if you've reached 100 percent completion in the game, just load up your file to start the DLC. Four new missions pop up as a result of booting up Infamy, which you can complete in any order, featuring Mr. Freeze, Mad Hatter, Ra's al Ghul, and Killer Croc. Each one is roughly 30-45 minutes long. Let's start with the Mad Hatter, the weakest link in the chain. His effectiveness as a Batman villain has always been questionable, and that goes double for his appearance in Arkham Knight. He was fine as a throwaway sidequest included in City, but the return of his presence does little to justify a premium price here. You'll be done with his bit in less than 30 minutes, running around Arkham with a minor series of fetch quests before confronting him at the Gotham City Police Department headquarters, and enduring another hallucination that amounts to nothing more than three easy combat challenges. It's a neat concept but it's so fleeting that I barely had time to digest it. Killer Croc is another of those one-dimensional foes that often functions as the muscle of an outfit -- a trope that leads you down a predictable storyline in the Infamy add-on. A prison ship has crash-landed compliments of an escape attempt by Croc, and you'll gallivant across the environment, chasing him down for a bit (with more fetch quests in tow of course). Consisting of a few platforming sequences and some combat, there's basically no thinking involved here in just about every facet of the short quest. It works better than Mad Hatter's portion though because most of it isn't comprised of re-used environments, and there is a nice brief reunion with Nightwing. [embed]328895:61630:0[/embed] Mr. Freeze on the other hand, is a villain that has always had a more interesting, nuanced characterization. He's not truly evil in the traditional sense -- rather, he sees his schemes as a means to an end, to save his wife Nora. The actual objectives for his quest aren't all that enthralling, but it's the only one that features Predator sequences, and the concept (and the exploration of his relationship with Nora) is compelling enough to see the tale through until the end. Plus, it has a Batmobile sequence that has more of a reason to exist than most of the ones in the campaign. Ra's al Ghul's quest is the other highlight of the pack, taking place mostly in Eliott General Hospital. Hush's part in Knight was extremely disappointing, especially after the buildup from City, so it's nice to see his family's legacy featured front and center to some degree. Along with some brand new zones you'll also work through a rather intriguing subplot featuring the League of Assassins (who are some of the only new enemies in the Infamy pack), and the Lazarus Pit -- one of the wackier bits of Batman lore. There's also a choice at the end that's actually pretty interesting that I won't spoil here. As a premium add-on, Season of Infamy really fails to produce much that feels like it's essential to the Arkham Knight experience outside of two tales. But on the other hand, it has a number of nice little touches, most notably a small expansion of the GCPD HQ, adding another wing (along with some easy WayneTech upgrade points), and the mission structure in the weaker two stories is competent at the very worst. If you really loved Knight and have been avoiding all the DLC thus far, Infamy is probably worth checking out at some point -- even if it's the only thing you buy piecemeal. [This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Batman DLC review photo
Ice to see the end of the Season Pass
I've refrained from reviewing most of the DLC for Batman: Arkham Knight outside of the Batgirl add-on, because of the short nature of the mission-based tales. But Season of Infamy has four missions, so that means it's four times as good, right?!

Review: Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star

Dec 22 // Caitlin Cooke
Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita) Developer: MediatonicPublisher: Devolver DigitalMSRP: $9.99Released: December 15, 2015 (PC), December 22, 2015 (PS4, Vita) Like the first game, players roleplay as a female human in a world full of talking birds. However, unlike the original Hatoful Boyfriend, Holiday Star mostly takes place outside of the school walls -- at mansions, convention centers, and even all the way to far-away dream planets with mountains made of pudding. Rather than focusing on romance, the plots revolve around mysteries and other oddities. Holiday Star contains four connected episodes, all of course extremely inane and silly as you’d expect from the series. In the first of the four, Christmas trees are mysteriously disappearing and it’s up to you and the rest of the town to figure out what’s happening. The second episode follows a mysterious bird who has a penchant for talking cryptically, and the last two end on a trippy dream to the Holiday Star itself, lead by an unhinged king and his dream citizens. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for the dating sim that was part of the original Hatoful Boyfriend, you may be disappointed. Holiday Star treads far away from the romantic bird roots to focus more on themes of danger, mystery, and the absurd -- probably focusing on the later even more so than the first game. Most of the storylines have delightfully twisted, nonsensical plots which fans of the series will appreciate. The game also borrows themes from Phoenix Wright with an occasional “OBJECTION” or “HOLD IT” here and there. Sadly, the delightfully absurd nature of the game is overshadowed by the fact that Holiday Star isn’t really a game at all. There are very few choices ever presented, making it a true visual novel more than anything else. For most of the chapters, it takes a good 15-20 minutes going through the dialogue until a decision point appears -- and even then the choices are a simple “do this or that” or “go here or go there” with usually two options presented. What’s more frustrating is that when story choices do appear, often there is only one right answer. This means that if an option is chosen incorrectly, it’s an instant game over -- and because there’s an insane amount of dialogue, it’s unlikely that you would have a backup save in the right place. Decisions don’t pop up until a good ¾ of the way into some of the chapters, so it becomes extremely birdensome to progress unless you save often. The run-on dialogue is made even more painful by the lack of music or background noise. There are only a few holiday songs that pop up from time to time, but for the most part the dialogue runs on for so long that the music loops, making the game seem even more hollow. It’s sad to say, but I can only recommend Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star if you’re either a) extremely bird to death over the holidays, B) extremely drunk over the holidays, or ideally, c) extremely both. Fans of the original game may enjoy seeing the same birds in new situations, but the lack of any choice or gameplay (even compared to the first) is just downright owlful. Those looking for an actual game may want to sparrow themselves the pain. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Hatoful Boyfriend review photo
One was fine but toucan be a problem
Everybirdie who’s anybirdie has found some kind of joy in Hatoful Boyfriend -- the strange yet alluring romantic bird simulator that stole the hearts of gamers and avians around the world. We’re graced this holida...

Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

Dec 22 // Chris Carter
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PS3, Vita [reviewed])Developer: Nihon FalcomPublisher: Nihon Falcom (JP), XSEED (US), NIS (EU)MSRP: $39.99 (digital) / $49.99 (limited retail edition)Released: September 26, 2013 (JP), December 22, 2015 (US), January 29, 2016 (EU) While it isn't necessary to enjoy Cold Steel, it's probably important to know where the game lies within the confines of the existing series. It takes place during the same time frame as Trails to Azure and Trails to Zero, but in a different location -- the Erebonian Empire. While I haven't played the aforementioned Japan-only titles, it's worth noting that you don't need to have played those games, as the backstory is pretty clearly explained. With that out of the way, you'll find a lot of familiar mechanics within your first few minutes of play. Cold Steel is a traditional JRPG through and through, with 3D field exploration, a turn-based strategic combat system, and lengthy dialogue exposition. The narrative this time around centers on "Class VII," a band of characters that literally deals with some classist themes, as the group is comprised of both rich and poor individuals. As the only Class that isn't separated by wealth, you'll find a host of different personalities as they tackle with their own demons and the overarching plot -- civil war, and mecha-based enemies called Archaics. As for the story itself, I was a bit mixed playing through it, due in large part to the presentation and pacing. While Falcom is great at worldbuilding and character development (across multiple games, no less), the narrative would frequently slow to a snail's pace, offering up almost nothing new or interesting during a number of long slogs. It's really cool to eventually learn the story behind Class VII and its place in the world, but often times Cold Steel is more content with spinning additional webs of intrigue than answering question.  [embed]328087:61583:0[/embed] The gameplay loop follows this same format. Chapters feel more formulaic in nature, as they provide opportunities to scour dungeons, give you a little piece of the story, and then send you on your way to enhance social links with your class. You essentially repeat this same concept until the game ends. Also keep in mind that this is a PS3 game from 2013, so it's not exactly cutting edge in terms of visual fidelity, especially on Vita. Having said that, I didn't have any major framerate or performance problems. Thankfully, the journey is worth the squeeze. Field exploration is fun, mostly due to the fact that the minimap is actually useful, the level designs are somewhat open-ended (despite mostly consisting of hallways), and the best addition of all -- you can see enemies on-screen before combat starts. While there's still a traditional transition screen into a turn-based fight every time, it's nice that you can dash past undesirable foes, or engage with them from a specific point of view (the side or back) for an advantage. Cold Steel has the neat feature that isn't used all that often of automatically defeating lesser enemies without wasting time fighting them. XP scaling also ensures that grinding is kept to a minimum. A save-anywhere function (including Cross-Save across PS3 and Vita) is a nice cherry on top. Combat is thankfully just as fleshed out, with Arts (magic), and Crafts (unique abilities). Queuing a spell brings up a helpful area-of-effect indicator (usually a circle or a line), which assists in tagging as many relevant enemies as possible. With 23 status effects, charge abilities, and S-breaks (supers) that can be comboed into other moves, Cold Steel is ridiculously old-school. I feel like the standard party of four is spot-on, as it's large enough to facilitate more complex strategies, but not so large that players will be overwhelmed. Like several elements of Cold Steel, the combat system is functional, but it doesn't do anything particularly exciting, and most fights don't make use of the mechanics to their full potential. As for statline customization, that's mostly governed by Quartz, which is a pretty open-ended system. It grants arts, stat bonuses, or even out-of-field effects like latent HP recovery, similar to Final Fantasy VII's materia system. Bonding elements and social links are also in, and the game encourages participation. There's a finite amount of Link EXP that follows a "use it or lose it" principle. I don't normally go for social elements in games like this (I prefer to focus on loadouts and strategy), but this is an okay way to incentivize it. Certain characters will have enhanced powers in combat if they're linked, and it helps that party members can be swapped at any time -- even without taking a turn. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel follows a lot of classic JRPG conventions, and as a result, it doesn't do a whole lot of things that haven't been done before, and better elsewhere. But the combat system still holds up, and the characters are charming enough to see the story through until the end. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Cold Steel review photo
Blissfully by the numbers
If I said the phrase "Nihon Falcom," most people wouldn't bat an eye unless they were a devout JRPG fan. Bringing up its most storied franchise, Ys, however, is a different story. Falcom has been working under the radar outsi...

Review: Guns Up!

Dec 20 // CJ Andriessen
Guns Up! (PlayStation 4) Developer: Valkyrie EntertainmentPublisher: SCEAMSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions)Release Date: December 5, 2015 Guns Up! is Boom Beach for your PlayStation 4. This tower offense/defense game tasks you with creating an impenetrable base and building an unstoppable army. To do both you'll need munitions, the in-game currency. You earn munitions by successfully attacking bases other Guns Up! players have designed over and over and over again. And then again about 500 more times. And then six more times after that. Attacking player bases revolves around you selecting your troops, sending them into battle and supporting them. "Support" takes the form of randomly unlocked specials on the field and from support cards you use before each attack begins. The experience is passive at best. You have no direct control of your troops outside of a few of the aforementioned specials that will force them to attack specific structures or move them to a spot on the battlefield. But once they destroy that object or reach that spot, soldiers revert back to their pre-programmed A.I. which can only be described as Gomer Pyle-esque. Other Guns Up! players cannot directly defend their bases from attacks. It's their base design versus your army. After about 45 minutes or so, I realized it's the same base design virtually all the time. That's because most players have realized the ideal set-up involves bottlenecking your opponents into a tight space with a turret at the end to mow 'em down. Couple this with the fact there is just the one Eastern Bloc countryside-inspired setting for the game and all the bases began to blur into one another. Attacks can be completed in as little as 90 seconds. With the right combination of specials (like missiles, tear gas and fire bombs) and sending wave after wave of your own men to die Zapp Brannigan style, it’s easy to overcome most challenges. Yes, the game does get more difficult as you level up and unlock more difficult bases, but there was never a feeling of accomplishment when I claimed victory at a higher level. There also wasn't a feeling of determination to try again when I lost. Instead the only feeling I got playing through this was a feeling of indifference. [embed]328159:61587:0[/embed] Success in battle rewards players with munitions and cards that range from battle support to perks for your soldiers. The munitions you win are used to build and expand your base. I nicknamed my first base layout "Tila Tequila" because it was small and easy to penetrate. My base grew as I leveled up, but a limited number of build points kept me from creating something that could stand up to player attacks. The number of successful defeats of invading armies didn’t start to grow until I adopted the same bottleneck design that everyone else was using. To be successful, my base had to look just like everyone else's. Guns Up! is free-to-play and one of the first questions I had about this game is if it's actually free-to-play. While I was provided $10 in credit by the publisher for this review, I didn’t find the need to use it until several hours into the game. By that point, I had already grown bored of playing the same goddamn map over and over again and just spent the money because it was something different to do. Players can't spend their way to the perfect base as you can't buy munitions directly, but spending money can help you progress more quickly. Money is converted to gold which can be spent renting soldiers you haven’t unlocked, customizing the colors and logo of your army, and purchasing card packs. You can also spend that money purchasing soldiers you have unlocked as simply unlocking them doesn’t instantly add them to your repertoire. Instead, the game gives you the option to spend a couple bucks worth of gold or an ungodly amount of munitions to get them. It was at level 16 or so that I finally did spend that money because progress had slowed to a crawl. Leveling up was taking forever and expanding my base became too damn expensive. If this game were fun I would have toughed it out. But it’s not fun, so I spent money on XP and munitions boost cards that would make the un-fun game easier to play. These cards, which are also included in a PlayStation Plus bundle (it's free for PS Plus users), killed any incentive for me to take on more challenging bases as defeating a lower level base netted me enough XP and munitions to progress at a steady pace. Okay, that's a lie. The only real incentive I had to continue on after I had seen everything the game had to offer in the first 30 minutes or so was the fact that I foolishly volunteered to review it. Guns Up! is a dull game. It's repetitive, it's tedious, it's digital Ambien. If the thought of a console version of Clash of Clans excites you, you’ll probably have a blast with Guns Up! Me, I can’t wait to delete this off my PS4. [This review is based on a retail build of the free-to-play game. A currency code valued at $10 was provided by the publisher.]
Guns Up! photo
Pew, pew, pfft
I don't know what I've been told. I don't know what I've been told. Free-to-play games leave me mighty cold. Free-to-play games leave me mighty cold. The microtransactions start to sting. The&nbs...

Review: Dark Cloud (PS4)

Dec 18 // Chris Carter
Dark Cloud (PS2, PS4 [reviewed])Developer: Level-5Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentMSRP: $14.99 Released: December 14, 2000 (PS2) / December 5, 2015 (PS4) Dark Cloud is the classic tale of good vs. evil, very much in the same vein as the Legend of Zelda series. The comparisons start with the story of a young boy with a green cap on an epic quest to save the world from a giant evil being, and permeate throughout with comparisons to Ocarina of Time's lock-on based battle system. In essence, a nazi awakens a genie, and it's up to Toan, our hero, to save the world. It's not exactly inventive, but the personal angle of all of the subplots really sell it. It may have all of the makings of a standard fantasy narrative, but true to Level-5's name, nearly everyone you meet along the way is charming enough to bring a smile to your face. This goes for the great supporting cast of playable heroes and any old random NPC you'll meet along the way. The fact that you can skip cutscenes is an excellent feature in hindsight, especially for veterans who play it regularly. The gameplay loop mainly involves dungeon crawling and world building. If you don't have the mental fortitude for hack and slash games like Diablo, the former may be a bit too repetitive for your liking. Dungeons have a randomly generated feel to them, with basic tunnel-based layouts and enemies peppered about. Every level is the same -- you'll need to locate a key to descend to the next stage, which is guarded by a random enemy on the floor. Your job is to basically explore everything, and just happen upon a key. [embed]327832:61573:0[/embed] Thankfully, dungeons are littered with engaging hazards and unique gimmicks to help nudge you along. I especially like that when coming upon a chest, players can "guess" the trap instead of using a key, potentially triggering an explosion or something to that effect. It's a neat mechanic, as you can basically guess the least desirable option in an effort to possibly force something else if your choice is wrong. Subsequent concepts like this really make you think, because sometimes, crawling can get particularly hectic. For instance, on one run, I had just been poisoned, and my water supply (which reduces HP steadily at zero) was nearly gone, so I had to hastily find my way back to a pond that restores your H2O stock and health. To do this, I had to expend an item that allows players to run faster, as well as some emergency food. Dark Cloud isn't the toughest action-RPG around, but it can get taxing depending on the circumstances. Combat does feel a bit rough by modern standards. While the lock-on feature does work well enough, the complete lack of a dodge button makes fights feel less engaging. Sure you can block and manually dodge if you want, but it's inherently slower and less flashy. Also, I never liked the finite weapon durability system, which can completely break your weapon if you aren't careful with your repair powder. The fact that weapons can evolve and accept socketed elemental gems is a nice touch however. The weapons themselves also have a ton of personality, especially Steve, the talking slingshot. The other big part of Dark Cloud is the creation element, using special items from dungeons to craft towns of your own. Since the big bad has destroyed most of the villages across the world, it's up to Toan to use his newfound magical powers to put them back together. It's sort of like a Sim-light, in that you can zoom out to view individual plots of land, and "place" objects like houses, trees, rivers, roads, and even people at will. After plotting out towns, you can go back into third or first-person mode to view your creations, which provides an immense sense of satisfaction even to this day. It's very limited in the sense that plots aren't too large, there's usually a small item limit, and since you need to meet "requests" (certain villagers like to live near specific landmarks for instance), you don't have a full sense of freedom when placing. But even then, the switch from creation to free roaming is insanely fast (quicker than I remembered), and the fact that not many games even have this element to date is important to note. Dark Cloud is a massive RPG overall, and the 100-floor endgame dungeon (Demon Shaft) is among my favorite locations in any video game to date, with an insanely satisfying optional superboss fight. As far as the PS4 port goes, I haven't run into any major issues. There are some hiccups (specifically this scan line appearing on-screen every 15 minutes or so), but nothing major. While the art style is inherently dated due to the PS2's engine, the character designs hold up, and the framerate is perfectly fine. In fact, the entire affair runs much smoother than I'd expect for a game from 2000. Keep in mind that this is merely an upscaled port though, and not a full HD remake. Having played the PS2 version side-by-side this week, I'm not convinced that there's a significant draw to getting it on PS4 outside of convenience. If you haven't played Dark Cloud yet, now is a perfect time to jump in. Sure, you'll encounter some relics of old school design, but if you're willing to overlook a few antiquated concepts and really dive in, you'll find a rich RPG that will last you as long as you're willing to put into it.
Dark Cloud PS4 review photo
Level-5's first game is reborn
Before Level-5 was creating its Yo-Kai Watch Empire and dazzling Nintendo fans with Professor Layton, it was creating amazing RPGs in the early 2000s. Among classics like Dragon Quest VIII, Jeanne d'Arc, and Rogue G...

Review: Yakuza 5

Dec 17 // Kyle MacGregor
Yakuza 5 (PS3)Developer: SegaPublisher: SegaMSRP: $39.99 Released: December 8, 2015 (NA/EU)  December 6, 2012 (JP) The tale unfurls from five seemingly unrelated vantage points, picking up two years after the events of Yakuza 4 with former yakuza and series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu attempting to live a quiet life as a cab driver in Fukuoka. Of course, our hero can't seem to escape his past, and with trouble brewing, it isn't long before he's pulled out of his taxi and back into the fray. Far to the north, Tojo strongman Taiga Saejima is nearing the end of a prison sentence in Hokkaido, where he, despite being 2,000 miles away from the events in Fukuoka, feels the ripple effects of what's going on. Meanwhile, Kiryu's adoptive niece Haruka has left her home in Okinawa to chase dreams of becoming a pop star in Osaka, where old friend Shun Akiyama, the affable moneylender from Yakuza 4, also happens to be setting up a new office for his company Sky Finance. Tossed into the mix is newcomer Tatsuo Shinada, a disgraced former baseball player living hand-to-mouth in a seedy corner of Nagoya after being thrown out of the league on suspicion of game-fixing. He, more so than the rest of the cast, appears to have little to do with the goings on of the criminal underworld, much less the tensions between the Omi Alliance and Tojo Clan. And yet he too becomes involved in this nationwide clash between gangs as everything intertwines and comes to a head. Speaking of heads, chances are, unless you're intimately familiar with Japanese geography or the series in general, that synopsis might have left your's spinning. With such a rich backstory and so many characters, locations, and groups, it can be difficult for even the best of us to fully grasp what's going on. But I suppose that's part of the charm; the complicated interweaving of everything makes for one hell of a soap opera delving into the fascinating world of Japan's organized crime families. Another strength of Yakuza 5, and the series in general, is the painstaking lengths at which Sega goes to make that world feel real. Everything from bustling city streets to the convenience stores and ramen shops is rendered with such attention to detail, it might just be the closest you can come to visiting Japan without hopping on a plane. In relief of that realism is the gameplay, which has a certain air about it akin to a smell that can send you back to a specific place and time. Whether you're brawling with gangsters, drag racing, fishing, participating in a FPS snowball fight, hunting, or playing Virtua Fighter or Taiko Drum Master in the arcade, the whole experience feels very much like a Dreamcast-era arcade game. Cut between the ultra-serious story of conspiracy and deadly consequences is a pastiche of ridiculous, over-the-top (and cloyingly dated) mini-games that serve to lighten the mood, smack you in the face, and remind you that it's a video game -- not just a television drama. Nowhere is this more evident than Haruka's portion of the story, which transforms the experience (for a while, at least) into an idol simulation with Hatsune Miku: Project Diva-esque rhythm game sequences and handshake meet-and-greet sessions with fans. Sadly, none of these elements are handled with the same care and dedication given to the story or world-building, which is a real shame, and leaves the experience feeling somewhat archaic. The fighting, in particular, hasn't seen much of a leap forward since the series debuted a decade ago on PlayStation 2. Even considering how long it took Sega to localize this particular entry, its stiff combat just feels woefully antiquated in contrast with most action games on the market these days. However, despite some rough edges like that or a bizarre fixation with hammering home an overarching theme about "dreams" near the point of self-parody, Yakuza 5 provides dozens upon dozens of hours of legitimate entertainment, the sort that kept me engaged and constantly left me torn between rushing ahead to see what twists and turns the story would take next and poking my nose into every single nook and cranny to explore the hostess clubs, remote mountain shrines, and everything in between. Yakuza 5 is exactly the sort of game the expression "greater than the sum of its parts" was made to describe. Each facet of the experience, taken individually, leaves room for improvement, but, reflecting on my time with Yakuza 5, I can't conjure much in the way of disappointment. Some bumps notwithstanding, it's a hell of a ride, one that I heartily recommend. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Yakuza 5 review photo
Who says crime doesn't pay?
With the chairman of the Omi crime syndicate on his deathbed, an uneasy truce with the Tojo Clan hangs in the balance. Anticipating a conflict, Tojo boss Daigo Dojima travels to Fukuoka in search of allies. But before an agre...

Review: Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

Dec 17 // Jed Whitaker
Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (PC)Developer: Iguana Entertainment, Night Dive StudiosPublisher: Night Dive StudiosMSRP: $19.99Released: December 17, 2015 Most people remember Turok: Dinosaur Hunter from the Nintendo 64, but there was also a PC port released back in 1997 as well. This latest release takes the best parts of both versions and combines them with an all-new engine to make a definitive PC version. That said, don't expect much new as the overall experience is largely unchanged from the N64 version: same music, same bland graphics, and same cheat codes. By just playing the game you'd probably not notice the differences unless you've recently done a playthrough of the N64 version, which I certainly haven't. Shooters in 1997 played a hell of a lot differently than they do now: no infinite lives or regenerating health, and you better be ready to collect keys; Turok is a classic shooter through and through. Stages feel massive and open due to most of the levels being designed as if you're outside in a very cliffy but smooth terrain. Levels offer branching paths though many just lead to a secret or weapon at a dead end, but you can explore freely in most areas as you wish, as well as travel between levels using portals at the end of the first level. While not completely open world, Turok is certainly a far cry from the hallways of Doom, at least until the final level of the game when things get a bit more linear and enclosed.  There isn't much of an in-game narrative to Turok. A Native American armed with weapons ranging from a bow and arrow to modern guns to alien technology fights through waves of humans, dinosaurs, and cyborgs to stop an evil person from taking over the world. Honestly, the story doesn't matter at all; the shooty bits are the real draw here. Blasting dinosaurs feels pretty satisfying all around, even if it is less Destiny and more like the classic Unreal series. The death animations of the humans are some of the best in any FPS; I especially enjoy when they grab their neck while blood squirts out. Sadistic, I know. [embed]327507:61554:0[/embed] The only time gunplay feels tedious is with the bullet-sponge bosses and late-game enemies. As the game advances it constantly rewards you with new weapons that help, including some with over-the-top, screen-filling explosions. Even with top tier weapons, bosses can still be a pain in the ass.  If you feel nostalgia for the worst parts of retro gaming then you'll get a kick out of this; saving the game still requires finding checkpoints. You have to manually select a save slot, and -- just like on the N64 -- to reload a save you must start a new game then pause and select your save to load. Aside from playing the game in widescreen, there are some other enhancements, though nothing major, you'll still be seeing the same ugly textures reused over and over. Options are included for field of view, and a new longer draw distance that still maintains the fog in the distance on most levels. Not having to deal with only being able to see a short distance ahead of you due to fog makes the game far easier, especially when enemies don't detect you till you get closer to them, and all the weapons seem to have unlimited range. While there is an option to reduce the draw distance -- thus moving the fog closer to you -- it doesn't feel like it is enough to replicate the feel of the N64 experience of being surprised by enemies coming out of the fog just mere feet ahead of you. The increased draw distance does fix one major issue the original version had; there is rarely any need to pull up your on-screen map overlay. I remember playing on the N64 with the map on the screen most of the time due to getting lost in the fog and not knowing where to go next, an experience I'd rather not relive. While the ten-year-old inside of me would like to pretend that Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is perfect and the best shooter of all time, I have to admit it isn't and this version isn't anything special. If you're looking to relive a retro experience with slightly better draw distance, a solid 60fps framerate, and a far superior control system then by all means pick this up. If you're more accustomed to the modern day FPS, it's best to leave this one buried in the past. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.] Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])Developer: Ubisoft MontpellierPublisher: UbisoftMSRP: $14.99Released: December 15, 2015 (PS4, Xbox One), December 22, 2015 (PC)
Review: Turok photo
A time machine to a better 1997
The year was 1997 and ten-year-old me was obsessed with two things, dinosaurs and video games. Imagine my excitement when the latest issue of GamePro magazine arrived in my mailbox informing me of an upcoming game where I got...


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